PORTALES — There they were, picked for last place in the Lone Star Conference South Division.
Ho-hum, just another year of Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball.
Don’t look know, but the Zias are in a three-way tie for the division lead heading into the stretch run, with wins over nationally ranked division rivals Angelo State and West Texas A&M.
ENMU (12-9, 6-2 South), which has won eight of its last 10, begins a four-game homestand with a 5:30 p.m. clash today against South preseason favorite Midwestern State (14-7, 4-4).
Second-year coach Dan Buzard said while the talent was there, experience and the fact that several players have stepped up big have been the keys.
“That upset us because we knew we were better than that,” he said of the poll. “Our goal in preseason was to win the Lone Star Conference championship. I told (the team), ‘We’ve got to do it one game at a time, and really one play at a time.’
“Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence. It’s just a great bunch of kids, and you want good things to happen to them.”
Junior Laci Lee leads four Zias in double figures with an average of 15 points a game. The development of freshman Heather Brown has allowed the Zias to move the versatile Lee from point guard to the off-guard position, thus giving her more scoring opportunities.
ENMU’s 19-point win over rival West Texas A&M in December gave the Zias a needed shot of confidence, Lee said.
“We changed some things at the beginning of the year, and it took us a while to get used to it,” the Portales High grad said. “I think things just kind of fell into place.”
Buzard said Lee’s success has made her a focal point for opposing defenses, forcing her to be able to score in a variety of ways.
“Laci’s been our constant pretty much all through the year,” Buzard said. “People realize who she is now, and she’s going to have people running at her all night long.
“There are a lot of things she can do that make her one of the better guards in the conference.”
Brown has become a major force since moving into the starting lineup during the Christmas break after sophomore Kristi McGuire was slowed for a time by an ankle injury. For the season, Brown is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 48 percent from the field, including 39 percent from 3-point range.
“It’s something to have a freshman come in and play that well for us,” Buzard said. “She came in here with a lot of competitiveness and a lot of leadership as a freshman.”
Senior post Jereena Bosket (12.0 ppg) and Texico sophomore forward Elizabeth Richards (11.0) have also made their presence felt. Bosket is shooting slightly better than 50 percent from the field, while the wiry 5-foot-11 Richards is tied for third in the conference in rebounding (8.1).
Lee said the players were only mildly bothered by the preseason poll.
“But in our minds, we knew that’s not where we should end up,” she said. “We’ve definitely surprised some people, I think, and earned some respect in the conference.”
The Zias haven’t gone to the LSC postseason tournament since 2000 after a stretch of 13 consecutive appearances. They are in position to change that this year.
“I think our experience has made us understand we were going to have to work harder,” Buzard said. “Our intensity has been there this season in practice and everything.”