By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico
With New Mexico Highlands scoring 123 points in its most recent exhibition win over Northern New Mexico, it was a safe assumption the Cowgirls were going to live or die Monday night at the 3-point line.
However, Highlands took advantage about five feet closer to the basket, living at the free-throw line to survive a late Eastern New Mexico rally and claim an 89-85 win Monday night at Greyhound Arena in the opener for both teams.
Ashley Logan scored 24 to lead four Cowgirls in double figures, and went 10-of-11 from the charity stripe as Highlands took advantage of a Zia squad that had pressure defense backfire to the tune of 28 fouls and 41 Cowgirl free throws.
Highlands (1-0) made good on 33 of them, more than double the free-throw makes (12) and attempts (16) by the Zias.
“It was a big part of tonight,” Zia coach Linden Weese said. “They outscore us by 21 from the line in a four-point game.
“We just didn’t drive (at the basket) nearly as hard as they did. We relied too much on our perimeter.”
And with the Cowgirls in a double-bonus free-throw situation for more than half of the contest, the Zias couldn’t be nearly as aggressive on the boards or on defense.
Just don’t tell second-year Highlands coach Tiffany Darling the Zia defense lost their aggression.
“We’re usually the team that plays with a lot of pressure, and we didn’t like a taste of our own medicine,” Darling said. “Their pressure really disrupted our offensive rhythm tonight.”
That pressure, Darling said, gave the Cowgirls trouble closing out a seven-point advantage in the final four minutes.
Trailing 81-75, the Zias got steals on consecutive Highlands possessions, and got layups as the result of both — including a three-point play by guard Erin Grant with 1:25 to go.
But offensive rebounds (18, compared to 13 for ENMU) saved the Cowgirls, as Briana Gholston grabbed a teammate’s miss on the ensuing possession and scored on a three-point play to give Highlands some breathing room.
The Zias got one final chance with point guard Tori Northcutt at the line and a three-point deficit with 3.7 to play, but Hope Williams grabbed the rebound when Northcutt intentionally missed the second and hit two free throws at the other end to close out matters.
Cat Clay led the Zias with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, while Northcutt had 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists
Gholston and Jessica Armijo both scored 14 for the Cowgirls, who travel to Oklahoma Panhandle State next Tuesday.
The Zias, meanwhile, travel to face Emporia State on Friday. Weese said Monday’s silver lining is that every mistake was correctable.
“The kids fought hard all the way,” Weese said. “They could have packed it up, but they fought back and made a game out of it.”