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New Mexico women throttle Utah

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DENVER — The Utah women's basketball team has always been known for its defense, but New Mexico turned the tables on the Utes in a 71-50 victory in the Mountain West Conference championship game Saturday at the Pepsi Center.

The Lobos' zone defense held the Utes to just 18 points on 23 percent shooting in the second half, and their 39-18 blitz left the Utes in shock.

While the Utes could only manage to make 6-of-26 shots in the second half, the Lobos shot 63.6 percent on 14 of 22 from the field.

With their 11th straight win, the Lobos improved to 23-7 on the year and earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Utah, which dropped to 24-7, is likely to get an NCAA berth as well when the bids are announced this afternoon.

It's not often that an Elaine Elliott-coached team is outscored by 21 points in a half, let alone in a game. In fact, it was the worst loss for Utah since a 22-point loss to USC in 1996. But Elliott was philosophical afterward and didn't lay the blame on her team.

"I think the credit has to go to New Mexico," she said. "They just played a great game. They shot lights out, and every kid contributed. Kudos to them, they deserve the credit."

The Lobos came into the game shooting just 33 percent from 3-point range but shot 62.5 percent on the day with 10 of 16 from the field.

"When you go 10 for 16 from 3-point range, it just buries a team," said Elliott. "They really shot the ball well."

New Mexico coach Don Flanagan said his team ran its offense better than it had all season in the second half. "We saved it for the Mountain West Championship in the second half. I'm very proud of these players."

The fact that the Utes only play seven players while New Mexico goes about 10 deep may have played a factor in Utah's second-half meltdown. But the Ute coaches and players didn't want to use it as an excuse.

"Honestly, I was tired," said Shona Thorburn. "But I expect it. In the regular season, we play two games in three days, so you have to be ready for it. I assume they were just as fatigued as we were."

"The last 20 minutes of three games in four nights is tough," said Elliott. "I think it caught up to us."

As usual, the Utes got off to a slow start, falling behind 10-2. But like they did a day earlier against UNLV, they didn't panic and chipped away until they grabbed a 20-19 lead on a Carley Marshall shot with 8:05 left.

When Kim Smith scored with a nice inside move, the Utes took their largest lead at 29-23 with 3:37 left. The Utes were in control but let the Lobos get back in the game with a 9-3 run to end the half as the two teams went into the locker room tied 32-32.

In the first half, the Lobos had used 11 players in anticipation of the fatigue factor in the second half. They came out with more energy and their zone defense befuddled the Utes.

The Lobos scored the first six points of the half and went on a 16-2 run over the first seven minutes to effectively put the game away. The lead reached 20 at 60-40 with 7:53 left, when Utah made one last run.

The Utes scored eight straight and had a chance to cut it further when Katie Montgomery missed two free throws. However, Melissa Forest grabbed the rebound and scored to push the lead back to 14, and then she followed with a 3-pointer after a Utah miss.

Forest led all scorers with 18 points, while Montgomery scored 14 off the bench and Lindsey Arndt, the tournament MVP, added 12. Thorburn scored 13 to lead Utah, and Smith had 12. Thorburn and Smith made the all-tournament team, along with Forest and Wyoming's Kristen Lenhardt.

Despite the loss, the Utes still plan to be dancin' this week in the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico gets the automatic berth from the MWC, but the Utes almost certainly will get an invite. Elliott thinks so.

"If you have an RPI in the 30s and you've won 24 games and you can't get into the tournament . . . what more do you have to do?" she said.

Elliott also believes the large loss shouldn't take away from the Utes' accomplishments this year.

"We've carried a burden of expectation all season long," she said. "I'm extremely proud of the kids and the way they held up. I don't want to forget what these kids have done this year."

GAME NOTES: The attendance was 4,289 with most of them Lobo fans. Which isn't surprising, considering that the Lobos averaged 11,617 at home this year, nearly a thousand more than Utah did for its men's games . . . This was Utah's first appearance in the finals since it won the MWC championship in 2000 . . . New Mexico had only beaten Utah 12 times in the past 26 years, but this was its largest margin of victory over the Utes ever, topping a 17-point victory in 1998 . . . During the regular season, the two teams split, with New Mexico winning 49-46 in Albuquerque and Utah winning 52-43 in Salt Lake.

E-mail: sor@desnews.com