t’s said there are no moral victories in sports. This one might qualify as an exception.
The University of New Mexico women’s basketball team pushed No. 5 Stanford to the brink Monday night at the Pit, twice digging out of double-digit holes to take leads, before finally absorbing a painful 70-65 defeat in front of an announced crowd of 6,594.
The Lobos lost it at the line, hitting just 7 of 16 from the free-throw stripe including 1 of 4 in the final minute. The Cardinal had more opportunities (17-of-29) and cashed in when it counted, hitting 6 of 6 foul shots in the last 30 seconds.
“That was a heartbreaker,” said junior Bryce Owens, who paced UNM with 16 points. “Definitely a heartbreaker. Our team did a lot of good things, but it’s so tough not to pull out that win.”
Despite trailing by 16 points in the first half and 12 in the second, the Lobos had a real chance to upset a Stanford team ranked No. 1 in the most recent USA Today coaches poll. UNM scored nine straight points and grabbed a 65-64 lead when Owens hit one of two free throws with 45 seconds left.
Stanford’s Kaylee Johnson hit two free throws to give her team a 66-65 edge with 30 seconds to play, but the Lobos got the ball with a chance to go for a winning shot.
The shot never came.
The Cardinal fouled UNM’s Antiesha Brown with 20 seconds left, and Brown missed both free throws. Forced then to foul, the Lobos sent Bonnie Samuelson to the line, and she hit both attempts to make it 68-65.
UNM’s last hopes ended when Stanford’s Amber Orrange blocked Cherise Beynon’s 3-point try with six seconds remaining. Orrange then hit two foul shots for the final margin.
“We were right there,” Lobo coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “A great effort against an unbelievable team that’s probably going to be in the Final Four.
“But we’ve got to hit free throws – that’s everybody. Everybody always remembers the last two and they shouldn’t. We were 7-for-16 at the line as a team and that’s what lost us the game.”
Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer breathed a sigh of relief after escaping with the close victory, crediting New Mexico for its resilient play.
“The thing that impressed me is (the Lobos) don’t give up,” Vanderveer said. “We got them down but couldn’t put them away, and that’s a compliment to them. We dodged a bullet with the missed free throws at the end, although we missed quite a few free throws, too.”
Both teams were missing key players due to illness. High-scoring guard Lili Thompson sat out for Stanford, while junior forward Alexa Chavez missed the game with a kidney infection.
The Cardinal hardly seemed to miss Thompson early, blistering the nets on their way to a 22-6 lead. Karlie Samuelson, who led all scorers with 23 points, hit two of her six 3-pointers during the early tear.
UNM, which dropped three straight games (two to ranked opponents) at the season-opening Maggie Dixon Classic in Chicago, appeared headed for an early knockout. Such would not be the case.
Beynon, Owens and Brown combined to net four 3-pointers during a wild 21-4 Lobos tear. Khadijah Shumpert’s layup with 5:16 left in the first half gave UNM its first lead at 27-26, and the Pit crowd was suddenly energized.
Beynon finished with 14 points in her first UNM home game, while Shumpert added 13 and Brown had 11.
“Our guards grew up tonight,” Sanchez said. “They hit shots, took care of the basketball, they really did a nice job.”
Brea Mitchell’s jumper gave the Lobos their biggest lead, 35-32, with five seconds left in the half. But Orrange, who last week hit a game-winning 3-pointer against UConn, banked in a long trey at the buzzer to tie the game at halftime.
Stanford then started the second half with a 14-2 run to build a 49-37 lead, but again UNM fought back. Shumpert’s first career 3-pointer and two more by Owens helped ignite the Lobos as they regained a late lead.
“It’s hard being an unranked team being so close against a team like Stanford and having it slip away,” Shumpert said. “But give us until tomorrow and we’ll be on to the next game. A lot of good can come from this.”