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Season ender?

Tough schedule little recovery time hinder Cougs in title bid

LAS VEGAS — For BYU, it was a matter of too much and too little as the Cougars fell 52-46 to New Mexico in Saturday afternoon's title game of the Mountain West Conference Women's Basketball Championships.

Too much — as in too much basketball in too few days. Too little — as in too little time to recover from a tough tournament path that required the defending champion and fifth-seeded Cougars to open Wednesday's quarterfinals with an overtime victory over tournament host UNLV, followed by a physical battle in beating league champion Utah in Friday afternoon's semifinals.

"Just tired," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins, bemoaning the quick turnarounds that hinder women's teams more than their male counterparts. "That's why we played so dang well against Utah — we had a day to recover."

The Cougars played tired and worn down — apparent in their poor shooting, their inability to attack with intensity and efficiency. Nowhere was it more frustratingly obvious for BYU than in the play of senior guard Erin Thorn, who had scored 34 points against the UNLV and 30 more against Utah.

Saturday against the Lobos, Thorn managed just 12 points — all coming in the first half — on 5-of-18 shooting.

"I wish, Erin, you could have had one more night where you'd get 40," said Judkins to his senior guard sitting next to him in the postgame interview room.

She couldn't — and she gave credit to the Lobos. "They have great team defense," she said. "Every time I drove, somebody was there. Every time I caught the ball, somebody was there."

But Judkins blamed a taxing tournament — the three games in four days as well as the physical and emotional demands against Thorn and her teammates. "When your legs go, it's hard to shoot," he said, adding the obvious: "Erin's legs were gone today."

Still, Thorn was named to the all-tournament team for the fourth time in as many years. She was joined by teammate Danielle Cheesman, who scored 10 points against the Lobos after outings of 20 and 15 points in the two previous games.

Thorn also scored a tournament-record 76 points this week and is the tourney's career scoring leader with 199 points.

Tournament MVP honors went to center Jordan Adams, who finished with 17 points for New Mexico (22-8 overall). She was the only Lobo to score in double figures.

BYU (19-11) now must play the waiting game, wondering if their season has been successful enough to merit an at-large invitation to the women's NCAA Tournament. As the tournament champion, New Mexico claimed the league's automatic berth; regular-season champion Utah is also expected to be invited.

"We deserve it," said Cheesman, wanting to repeat the Cougars' fortunes when they upset No. 3 seed Iowa State in the second round of the 2002 NCAAs. "We can do some damage like we did last year."

Behind Thorn's 12 points, BYU took a 24-22 lead at intermission following a first half where neither tired team shot well — BYU 34.5 percent and New Mexico 27.3.

The Cougars twice posted the half's largest lead at four points — the first at 15-11 with six minutes to play on a 3-pointer by Kali Taylor and at 17-13 two minutes later on a running jumper in the lane by Thorn.

The Lobos evened the score twice in the final minutes, with BYU taking the halftime advantage on a Thorn jumper from the free-throw line.

After seven lead changes and two ties in the first eight minutes of the second half, the Cougars seemed to take temporary control, forcing the Lobos into shot-clock violations on back-to-back turnovers while taking a 37-33 lead midway in the half on a Ambrosia Anderson jumper from the line and a Ashleigh Chamberlain put-back.

But New Mexico rallied immediately with its own 7-0 surge to take a lead — one it would never surrender — at 40-37 with seven minutes to play. The Cougars drew to within one twice — a three-point play by Kestlee Nelson for a 42-41 score with 4:39 to play and a Cheesman baseline jumper to pull withing 44-43 with 2:25 left.

BYU misfired on the next four possessions, while New Mexico used a follow by Chelsea Grear and adequate free-throw shooting — 6-of-10 — to pull away in the final two minutes. Anderson's trey ended the game's scoring.

All that was left for the Lobos were the trappings of a championship team — the conference-championship hats, T-shirts, placards and trophy and the ceremonial cutting down of the nets.

A three-time tournament finalist in as many years, it's what the Cougars enjoyed last year and Saturday were forced to watch again like they did in 2001.

NOTES: BYU's Jen Overdiek grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds . . . BYU finished shooting 35.8 percent, while New Mexico's 41.2 percent in the second half helped the Lobos to end the game at 32 percent. . . . One difference in the second half was BYU being whistled for 13 personal fouls and New Mexico three, allowing the Lobos to finish 14-of-20 at the line compared to the Cougars' 4-of-8. But Judkins again cited his team's fatigue in being a key factor for any disparity in personals . . . Also named to the women's all-tournament team were New Mexico's Mandi Moore and UNLV's Sherry McCraklin . . . BYU was the first No. 5 seed to reach the tournament finals . . . Saturday's title game was the lowest-scoring in the MWC's four-year history.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com