By Dave Wagner
After losing a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Abilene Christian at home last season, Eastern New Mexico University’s women almost returned the favor Thursday night.
Trailing by 22 points in the first half, the Zias mounted a strong charge and took the lead twice down the stretch. But ACU’s Kierstan Barbee hit a 3-point bomb from well beyond the arc and junior center Jamie Boles followed with a 3-point play to lift the Wildcats to a 76-73 Lone Star Conference South Division victory at Greyhound Arena.
The win boosted ACU (14-5, 5-1 South) into a tie for the division lead with Angelo State, which knocked West Texas A&M out of the top spot with an 81-66 win at Canyon, Texas. Meredith Doyle scored 16 points and Boyles and Barbee added 15 for the Wildcats.
Sophomore guard Heather Brown missed her first nine shots from the field, but recovered to finish with a game-high 17 points for the Zias. Senior guard Mika Robertson added four 3-pointers and 13 points, and junior forward Tia Doss chipped in 12.
With Eastern mounting its comeback, ACU coach Shawna Lavender had thoughts her team’s last-second 61-60 victory at Greyhound Arena last year.
“It went through my mind,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, no …”
The Zias (9-11, 3-4) simply got off to a dreadful start, falling behind 13-0 in the first 3 1/2 minutes. They trailed 46-26 after a 3-pointer by Doyle with 18:51 left before suddenly mounting a 13-0 run of their own to get back into striking range.
ENMU made a game of it by shooting 59 percent from the field in the second half after going just 8-of-34 in the opening 20 minutes.
“The biggest difference in the second half was our shots started falling, and we started getting some pretty good ball pressure,” ENMU acting women’s coach Dustin Klakfka said. “When your shots aren’t going in, it’s hard to get your intensity up on defense.”
Trailing 59-50, Eastern went on a 10-1 run capped by Robertson’s 3-pointer from the right side which tied it with five minutes left.
Baskets by Riikka Lehtonen and Loren Scarlett gave the Zias their first lead 68-66 with two minutes to go, but Barbee launched a shot from several feet behind the arc on the next trip. Brown’s baseline shot put ENMU back in front with 1:14 to go before Boles converted her 3-point play with 57 seconds left.
Barbee added four free throws in the remaining time to salt it away.
Lavender said she considers Greyhound Arena the toughest venue in the conference for her team to play.
“I told the girls at halftime, ‘Expect (Eastern) to come out with more intensity in the second half,” she said. “They were more aggressive and took it to us.
“Against Eastern, at Eastern, you’re never far enough ahead because they always seem to come back.”
It was the second time since Christmas the Zias have erased a deficit of at least 20 points after halftime to take the lead late, only to end up with a loss. On Jan. 13, they trailed Southeastern Oklahoma 40-17 early in the second half, took a two-point lead in the final minute of regulation and then were beaten in overtime.
“These kids don’t surprise me with their effort and courage,” Klafka said. “We’ve been down a lot this year; sometimes we’ve been able to overcome it and sometimes not.
“Tonight, the hole we dug was just too big.”
Lone Star Conference South
Abilene Christian 76, Eastern New Mexico 73
Abilene Christian (14-5, 5-1) — Stephanie Riles 3-7 3-4 9, Meredith Doyle 6-9 1-2 16, Jamie Boles 5-6 5-9 15, Alex Guiton 0-2 4-4 4, Ashley King 1-4 3-3 6, Laura Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Jaymie Harner 0-0 0-0 0, Ashlee Barr 1-2 0-0 2, Haley Hammond 3-8 2-3 9, Kierstan Barbee 4-9 6-7 15. Totals 23-47 24-32 76.
Eastern New Mexico (9-11, 3-4) — Mika Robertson 4-10 1-5 13, Tiana Bryant 4-12 0-1 8, Riikka Lehtonen 2-5 1-3 5, Heather Brown 5-17 6-6 17, Erika Cook 4-8 0-0 8, Tia Doss 2-4 8-10 12, Casey Rodriguez 1-3 2-6 4, Ashley Davidson 0-0 0-0 0, Loren Scarlett 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 25-63 18-31 73.
Halftime — Abilene Christian 43, Eastern New Mexico 24. 3-pointers — Abilene Christian 6-15 (Doyle 3-5, Barbee 1-2, Hammond 1-2, King 1-4, Guiton 0-2), Eastern New Mexico 5-18 (Robertson 4-8, Brown 1-3, Bryant 0-2, Rodriguez 0-2, Cook 0-3). Rebounds — Abilene Christian 36 (Riles 7), Eastern New Mexico 40 (Bryant, Scarlett 6). Assists — Abilene Christian 16 (King 8), Eastern New Mexico 12 (Brown 5). Total fouls — Abilene Christian 26, Eastern New Mexico 31. Fouled out — Riles, Dolyle, Bryant, Doss. A — 535.