Written By: Bill Harty
Friday night was the lone exhibition game to begin the new season for the New Mexico State Aggie women’s basketball team. After a difficult year (6-24, 3-11 WAC) in Mark Trakh’s first as Aggie head coach ended on a high note as the Aggies made a serious run at eventual champion Fresno State in the WAC tournament, expectations are a bit higher for the new season.
The Aggies believed they had graduated four seniors from last year’s squad, including forward Tabytha Wampler, who was the best offensive player on last year’s team, and guards Kaitlyn Soto and Erica Sanchez. However, forward Kelsie Rozendaal was granted another year of eligibility and joins six others returning to this year’s squad: Senior forwards Chrissy Fletcher and Malia Magazzeni, and guards Camila Rosen, a senior, junior Jasmine Rutledge, sophomore Simone Ruedin, and redshirt freshman Elena Holguin, from Las Cruces Mayfield High School. Trakh and his assistants added six new players, all guards, for this season: senior Southern California transfer Stefanie Gilbreath, sophomore San Diego transfer Danesia Williamson, and freshmen Alexis Nelson, Abby Scott, Sasha Weber, and Shay Young.
The Aggies’ opponents were the Fort Lewis College Skyhawks, from Durango, Colorado. Last year’s Skyhawks (26-5, 19-3 RMAC) made a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs, and completed the season ranked in the ESPN/USA Today top 25, where they had been every week of the prior four years. The Skyhawks were national runners-up in 2010, and over the past four years had a home record of 57-1. However, Fort Lewis graduated five seniors, four of whom started regularly, and lost their coach, Mark Kellogg, to Northwest Missouri State.
Jason Flores became the new Fort Lewis head coach, coming from Nebraska-Omaha, where he served as the Mavericks’ top assistant to Patty Patton-Shearer. He went to Omaha with Patton-Shearer from Fort Lewis, where he was associate head coach for five years ending in 2004. The Skyhawks were picked fifth in the RMAC preseason coaches’ poll, for whatever that’s worth. Senior guard Katerina Garcia was named to the preseason all-RMAC team; however, she was injured and did not play in the NMSU game.
Fort Lewis won the opening tip and scored first on a short Christie Groh jumper. The early lead went back and forth with Gilbreath scoring the Aggies’ first seven points; Trakh called an early timeout when Fort Lewis went into the lead at 11-9. Powered by the #superhoop performance of guards Ashley Kuchar (three) and Kylie Santos (two), Fort Lewis held the lead for much of the first half, keeping the Aggies off-balance by shifting defenses among a man-to-man, a 2-3 zone, and a three-quarter court trap. At times, when Gilbreath was in the game, the Aggies seemed to revert to last year’s habit of leaning on one player for much of the scoring, everyone else seeming hesitant to shoot. Late in the half, freshmen Abby Scott and Shay Young (who did not have last year’s habits to break) came off the bench to key an Aggie comeback, which came after Fort Lewis stopped their full-court defensive pressure. Scott’s #superhoop with just under a minute to go gave the Aggies the 38-35 lead they carried into halftime.
Gilbreath scored fifteen tallies in the first half, leading the game; Kuchar led Fort Lewis with eleven. Seven players from each team contributed to the first half scoring, and the field goal percentages were each 48%. Only one Skyhawk, Alex Easterbrook, attempted first half free throws, making four of eight, but twice missing the first of one-and-one attempts; the Aggies made seven of nine free throw tries.
The second half started much like the first with Fort Lewis using full-court defensive intensity, and Gilbreath scoring the first seven points for NMSU. Scott and Young continued to be effective for the Aggies in the second half, and a Scott assist to Camila Rosen put the Aggies ahead 55-44, causing Flores to call timeout. Whatever he said in the huddle was effective, apparently reminding his team that they had the ability to make three pointers over the Aggie zone. Their #superhoop barrage brought the Skyhawks within two of the Aggies at 60-58 with nine minutes to play, causing Trakh to use his fourth timeout of the game. The Fort Lewis run continued after the pause, and the Skyhawks held a 63-60 advantage with about seven minutes to play. At that point, it seemed the Aggie size and inside strength started to wear on Fort Lewis. Danesia Williamson came off the Aggie bench and scored seven during an Aggie 13-2 run, giving them the lead for good. Several hard Skyhawk fouls sent the Aggies to the line, where they made ten of twelve in the final seven minutes. Despite two more Fort Lewis three pointers near the game’s end, the Aggies won 80-73.
Gilbreath, from whom we will hear much this season (the preseason second team All-WAC selection may not be optimistic enough, but newcomer of the year seems reasonable) led all scorers with twenty-six to go with four rebounds (I would have sworn there were more). Williamson ended with fourteen, and Young added ten for the Aggies. Kuchar had twenty-four for Fort Lewis, who made eleven of twenty-six #superhoop attempts. Erika Richards quietly added fourteen Skyhawk points, and Easterbrook scored eleven to go with eight assists. Little sister Kaile Magazzeni, a sophomore Fort Lewis guard, outscored NMSU senior Malia four to two, and they shared a hug in the post-game handshake line.
Each team opens their regular season soon, Fort Lewis playing McMurry in a weekend tournament hosted by Midwestern State (OK), and the Aggies hosting Loyola Marymount on Monday, November 12.