By Albert Luna
NMSU women’s basketball Head Coach Mark Trakh could not remember the last time his team beat in-state rivals two games in a row. That was, until Tuesday night.
The New Mexico State women Aggies had their home-opener on Tuesday night as they took on the University of New Mexico Lobos, beating them 78-59. The Lobos were previously beaten on Sunday by the women Aggies’ male counterpart in Albuquerque. This is the first time the Aggies have defeated the Lobos in back-to back-games since the 1995-1996 season.
Both teams were 1-0 in the young season, with NMSU defeating North Dakota State, 79-69, in their season-opener in Fargo, on Friday night. The Lobos also played on Friday, defeating Houston Baptist, 65-57, in Albuquerque.
The Aggies came into this season with high expectations for their program, after making an appearance in the NCAA tournament earlier this calendar year. Perhaps the most encouraging news of it all is that the Aggies are returning all five of their main starts from that NCAA tournament team, easily making the Aggies a favorite to repeat as champions of the WAC, per preseason coaches and media votes.
It also never hurts to have Brianna Freeman, who was named the WAC player of the year this past campaign. Freeman was also named the Preseason MVP by the coaches and media. She had 12 points and eight rebounds on Friday night. A big change also in women’s college basketball this year is the initiation of 10-minute quarters instead of halves, a first for the sport.
The opening sequence of Tuesday night’s game yielded strong defense with the first two minutes, but the Aggies went to work from there. The Aggies switched up their defense early to put on a full court press, which clearly put the Lobos out of their comfort zone.
“That is our style, we plan to press all game, it was not just game planned for UNM, and it will be like that the entire season,” Trakh says.
Freeman picked up right where she left off last season and scored a nice jump hook off of the right block to open up the scoring. The Aggies later used turnovers, six in the first five minutes of play alone, to jump out to a quick 10-3 lead, forcing UNM to call time.
UNM began to wake up a bit and hit a pair of early threes to put them within striking distance. Fouls, however, were the theme of the entire game early and often, with both teams combining for 23 fouls in the first 20 minutes alone, averaging well more than one every minute.
Freeman did not benefit from this, as she picked up two quick fouls and was limited to only six minutes of game action. A big three by Abby Scott at the eight-minute mark in the quarter woke up the dormant crowd and put the Aggies back up, 16-11. However, the Lobos continued to find their groove offensively as UNM’s Cherise Beynon reached a game-high 10 points through the first 10 minutes of play. The quarter ended with Sasha Weber hitting a three from just inside the half court line, beating the buzzer and sending NMSU into the second quarter of play down 22-16.
Brooke Salas opened up the second quarter with a nice up and under move after securing an offensive rebound. Salas, a native of Placentia, California, also got the start in the game, reaffirming Trakh’s previous statements that she should have a chance to play big minutes.
“Brooke has a chance to be very good,” the coach says. “We’re very excited we got her. She’s going to be a heck of a player.”
She later had four more points in the opening segment of the quarter, putting her at six just in the quarter. Zaire Williams gave the Aggies some nice offense off the bench in the second period also, including an and-one off the left block and a three from the left corner.
After the Lobos opened up the third quarter with a few points to bring things to within double digits, the Aggies again hit New Mexico with their signature press, forcing the Lobos into more difficult shots than they would like.
However, the quarter proved to be a stark contrast to its predecessor, with both teams enjoying scoring. The Aggies escaped the third quarter, edging out UNM in scoring, 20-14, to go into the decisive quarter up 15, 57-42.
The fourth quarter opened up with a Freeman pull-up jumper from the free throw line. The Aggies, however, seemed to have done most of their damage in the first half, as UNM struggled to shoot over 40 percent the remainder of the game. NMSU had two straight daggers by Shanice Davis and Sasha Weber from behind the three-point line to put NMSU at its largest lead, 70-50, with two minutes remaining.
The Aggies caught fire late, hitting five straight threes to end the game, including two straight from Tamera Williams. The Aggies closed out the Lobos from there, the final: 78-59.
Trakh attributes his teams’ stellar play to start the season to the experience and confidence that they gained last year, particularly going toe-to-toe with an eventual Final Four team in Maryland.
“Only losing by 18 to them was big for us,” he says. “We’re a different team. We now have confidence and I think it is showing in big games like tonight.”
The Aggies will next be in action on Thursday night, when they take on Sacramento State, at seven p.m. in the Pan American Center.
Albert Luna may be reached at ALuna32@NMSU.edu
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