(This is the thirty-fifth installment of Bill Harty’s game recaps as part of The Mid Majority ninth season taking readers to mid-major college basketball games around the country. Visit midmajority.com to find out more about this group-sourced effort to spread the word about the many fine basketball programs around the country that are having success on and off the court while generally not having access to the resources brought to athletic programs by big-time college football. Bill will be recapping most Aggie home games, and the occasional road foray, for both The Mid Majority and bleedCrimson.net.)
After their 76-63 win over the UT-Arlington Mavericks on Tuesday evening, the Aggies of New Mexico State faced the Redhawks of Seattle University. The Redhawks (18-9 overall, 15-3 WAC) entered the tournament as its top seed, having won one more conference game than second place Utah State. Seattle’s only losses of the conference season were on the road (at UTSA, San Jose State and Utah State); the Redhawks had won seven straight games before this one. Coach Joan Bonvicini, who has led teams to WCAA, PCAA/Big West, and Pacific 10 conference titles, seeks to add the WAC crown to her record.
The Aggies also faced the number one seed (Fresno State) as the eighth seed in last year’s WAC tournament, falling to Fresno State after a valiant effort. The Aggies (15-15, 7-11 WAC) have improved dramatically from last year’s six-win season. Their rough conference start can be somewhat attributed to youth on the roster and some injuries to key players. NMSU had won six of its prior seven games following their 78-62 loss at Seattle on February 9. Their earlier game in Las Cruces was decided in the final few minutes, the Redhawks winning 60-54; my bleedCrimson.net recap of that game was entitled, “Cold Shooting and Colder Shooting.” That story included a discussion of the lengthy history between Aggie coach Mark Trakh and Bonvicini during his tenures at Pepperdine and Southern California, and hers at Long Beach State and Arizona.
The first ten minutes of the game were dominated by the Aggies. The game started with a superhoop from Danesia Williamson as freshman Sasha Weber was covered too closely to get off a shot; this may be the first game all year that a freshman guard didn’t take the first shot, always from outside the arc. All five starters contributed to building the 19-6 lead. The next seven minutes or so were exactly the opposite. Seattle came roaring back, led by forwards Kacie Sowell and Ashley Ward. With three minutes to play, Sowell’s jumper from the left baseline gave the Redhawks their first lead, 22-21. Aggie guard Stefanie Gilbreath took control, scoring eight straight points on two #superhoops sandwiched around a third shot from just inside the arc. After some end of the half free throws, the Aggies went to the intermission with a 33-25 lead.
In the first period, Gilbreath led all scorers with eleven points for NMSU. Williamson had eight points, Camila Rosen seven points, and Kelsie Rozendaal added three points to go with her seven rebounds. Ward (ten points, four rebounds) and Sowell (eight and six) garnered most of Seattle’s stats in the first half. Shooting percentages were pretty close, but the Aggies had made five #superhoops on sixteen tries; Seattle was one for six from long distance.
The second period began with Seattle reminding NMSU who was the higher seed in the tournament, scoring the first eight to draw into a tie at 33. The next five minutes saw the Aggies crawl into a small lead several times, only to be matched by the Redhawks. With eleven minutes to play, the score was again tied, this time at 43. After the media timeout, Seattle established clearly who would win the day as fatigue seemed to set in for the Aggies, who had played the night before; Seattle, with a bye to the quarterfinals, had not played since Saturday. The Redhawks scored thirteen straight points, Ward setting the tone with a #superhoop and Sowell scoring seven points.
The next stretch was not much better for the Aggies. Redhawk Daidra Brown slashed through the Aggie defense for three layups, and Sowell continued to add to her total with a couple more buckets. At the end of Seattle’s 36-10 run (including the 13-0 start), the Redhawks led 77-53 and cleared the bench with under a minute to play. No one scored again and that was the final score.
For the game, Gilbreath ended with twenty-three points, Weber and Gilbreath scored eight each, and Rosen seven. Rozendaal didn’t score in the second period, but ended the game with ten rebounds; twenty-seven boards in her final two games as an Aggie is a pretty good finish, especially for an undersized center that has to work hard for every rebound. Ward (24), Sowell (23), and Brown (16) led the Redhawks in scoring; Sowell also grabbed eleven rebounds.
The Redhawks advance to the tournament’s semi-final against traditional women’s basketball power Louisiana Tech with a reasonable expectation of winning the tournament.
The Aggies finish the season 15-16, increasing their victory count two-and-a-half times over last year’s 6-31 season. Coach Mark Trakh in his postgame interview took his hat off (well, figuratively) to the Redhawks, noting they had changed the game by pressing, which the Aggies did not handle well. In the latter stage of the second half, the Aggies had no counterpunch left. He expressed happiness with the direction of the program, with good players returning and a good recruiting class. Trakh noted the long conference losing streak coincided with Rozendaal’s injury, and that it seems at least possible that an appeal to the NCAA for a seventh season for Gilbreath in light of her only having played less than three complete years due to repeated knee injuries and surgeries.
Gilbreath and Rozendaal expressed appreciation to the coaching staff and Las Cruces fans for great runs at NMSU. Alas, for all but one team, it always ends in a loss. See you next year, Aggies. Big thanks to seniors Rozendaal, Rosen, Chrissy Fletcher, Malia Magazzeni, and Stefanie Gilbreath for a great run in a time of transition for NMSU women’s basketball.