ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sanchez Tweaks UNM’s Starting Five
Kathy Olivier shouldn’t need a motivational speech for this one.
The UNLV women’s basketball coach undoubtedly has emphasized the Rebels’ opponent for tonight’s Mountain West Conference opener at Cox Pavilion.
That would be the University of New Mexico Lobos – the same Lobos who shocked second-seeded UNLV on its home court in round one of last season’s MWC tournament. The Rebels went into that game with 22 wins, while New Mexico was 9-19.
New Mexico women at UNLV, 8 p.m., 610 AM
“No question they’ll have newspaper articles from that game tacked up in their locker room,” UNM coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “We were the team that knocked them out, and they’ll be ready to come after us.”
The revenge factor is one of several intriguing subplots to tonight’s matchup. Another is that UNM and UNLV have effectively switched places since the last time the teams squared off.
The Lobos (8-5) now have depth and have generally exceeded expectations this season. The Rebels (4-10) lost a key player (senior guard Mia Bell) to season-ending knee surgery and have struggled both home and away.
“Their best player’s injured and they’ve played a very good schedule,” Sanchez said, “but none of that matters now. We have to expect their best, and we better be ready to answer it.”
The Lobos will also be trying to rid themselves of a bitter taste. UNM played miserably and was blown out by 23rd-ranked Colorado in its last outing 11 days ago.
“We have a chip on our shoulders, something to prove,” sophomore Antiesha Brown said. “That was embarrassing, and we’ve gone through a very tough week of practice to make sure we’re physically and mentally prepared this time.”
Sanchez promised changes after the Colorado loss and spent much of the ensuing break enacting them. Such should become immediately obvious tonight, as UNM’s starting lineup is expected to include only two players who started against the Buffaloes.
Brown, a transfer who became eligible during the semester break, will make her first Lobo start tonight. She’ll join Bryce Owens, Jourdan Erskine, Deeva Vaughn and Chinyere Nnaji on UNM’s first unit.
Caroline Durbin, Sara Halasz and Whitney Johnson will come off the bench, Sanchez said. Durbin, the Lobos’ leading scorer at 12.5 points per game, and Halasz started the 13 previous games.
“I’m sure they want to start,” Sanchez said, “but they’ve handled the change extremely well. They’ll still play a ton of minutes, but we’ve got to find a way to start games better. We know Caroline and Sara can give us a spark off the bench.”
The addition of Brown, Vaughn and Nnaji to the starting lineup figures to boost UNM’s quickness and aggressiveness. Vaughn, who will spend time at both guard and forward tonight, said the Lobos are heading into conference play with renewed confidence.
“I feel like we’ve raised the bar during the last week,” Vaughn said. “We have all the potential to win this conference. We just have to come out and play strong, especially against UNLV at their house.”
The upcoming schedule presents a challenge for New Mexico, which plays three of its first four MWC games on the road. The Lobos visit Fresno State on Saturday before returning home to play Boise State.
“I don’t mind this schedule,” Sanchez said. “It plays out well because we’ll be at home for a final push, but we have to get a couple road wins if we want make a serious run.”
For Brown, it’s a chance to finally face MWC competition.
“I had to be a lot of these players on the scout team last year,” Brown said, “so I know them pretty well. I hope that pays off now that I’m playing against them.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal