At the start and at the end, it was the same for Fresno State, and no matter what came in between it was not enough to save the Bulldogs in a 64-53 loss to New Mexico on Wednesday in a semifinal at the Mountain West Conference women’s basketball tournament
The Bulldogs, their streak of seven straight NCAA Tournament bids on the line, just could not make a shot, no matter how close to the rim they got. Layup, no. Short jumper, no. Anywhere in the paint, no.
Fresno State had put itself in a hole early, missing its first 10 shots with five turnovers sprinkled in. And after cutting all but one point from a nine-point deficit with 11:10 remaining, it was more of the same. The Bulldogs had four shots to take a lead, but came up empty despite getting shots within a few feet of the basket.
Toni Smith missed a short jumper, then, after getting an offensive rebound, missed again right at the rim, Alex Sheedy missed in the lane and on the next trip down the floor following a New Mexico miss, whiffed again right at the rim.
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And having withstood that charge, the Lobos answered, sending the Bulldogs to their first loss in a conference tournament since Louisiana Tech beat them 68-66 at the 2010 Western Athletic Conference Tournament. They had won 12 league tournament games in a row, six in back-to-back championship seasons since joining the Mountain West.
“They played a great game and came right out of the gates knocking down some shots, shooting 46% in the first half and then just really limiting us,” first-year coach Jaime White said.
“I thought they played physical and their defense really kind of threw us off there a little bit at first. I thought we were forcing some offense.”
The Bulldogs did at times, but also when they did have a chance failed to take advantage of their opportunities. New Mexico, which split the regular season series with the Bulldogs, did.
“We made the right runs at the right time and sometimes it just works that way,” New Mexico coach Yvonne Sanchez said.
Brea Mitchell knocked down a big shot from the 3-point line to give New Mexico a 40-36 lead with 8:25 to go and after Fox cut the deficit back to two with a shot in the lane, the Lobos went on a 9-0 run that propelled them into Friday’s championship game where they will play No. 4 Boise State for the conference’s automatic NCAA berth.
Fresno State went in leading the Mountain West in 3-point field goal percentage defense, but with the shot by Mitchell the Lobos were 5 of 10 on 3-pointers. The Bulldogs had not allowed an opponent to hit that high a percentage from the 3-point line since Wyoming was 8 of 16 on Jan. 17 and only one team since had hit better than 33%.
“We just had to slow down a little bit. We had to play our game,” said guard Antiesha Brown, who led the Lobos with 18 points. “I think we got a little bit rattled at the beginning of the second half, but it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t handle. We just had to recollect as a team and us five on the court, we had to make some decisions on the court to slow down the pace and regain that control of the game.”
Fresno State, unable to make shots, was finished there. After cutting the deficit to one point the Bulldogs, who are 22-9 and with an RPI of 50 (as of Tuesday) holding only a long-shot hope at an NCAA Tournament bid, went 6 minutes with only one basket despite getting good looks.
“I think there were things that we could have improved offensively, but I think obviously there were times when we exploited their defense,’’ said Sheedy, who hit 2 of 11 shots, but was 10 of 10 from the free-throw line to finish with 14 points.
“I think it was just a matter of toughness and making shots. … We had a lot of open shots that we didn’t knock down. We missed about 7 million layups I don’t know if that was great defense or just bad offense. I don’t know.’’
Down the final 4 minutes, the Bulldogs could not get closer than eight.
They finished 18 of 51 (35.3%) including 3 of 15 at the 3-point line (20%) and turned over the ball 21 times, which led to 18 points for the Lobos.
“I thought we did a good job rebounding (they were even at 31), it’s just that we didn’t knock down some shots,” White said. “It was physical. We weren’t getting some of the seams that we got the other night.”
White seemed resigned to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament being the Bulldogs’ only option to continue their season. The 64-team field will be announced Monday night, after the NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled.
“I have a lot of respect for the NIT, been in it multiple times,” White said of previous stops at Northern Colorado and Wyoming. “I know that the Mountain West has been successful in it. Obviously Wyoming won it a couple years ago.
“We lose five seniors. It’s another way to get your kids experience in the postseason. We’d love to do it in front of our home crowd.”