Two streaking women’s basketball teams meet Wednesday in Albuquerque as the Colorado State Rams (17-5, 9-2 MW) hit the road against the New Mexico Lobos (12-10, 8-3 MW) for a showdown between the second and third-place teams in the Mountain West, respectively.
With wins in nine of its last 10 games, CSU appears poised to make a run to leapfrog conference leader Fresno State for a second consecutive Mountain West regular season title.
But the Lobos may have something to say about that, as they are riding a three-game win streak with wins in six of their last seven games to creep past Boise State into third place in the conference.
“It’s a game with enough on the line for there to be plenty of enthusiasm and urgency for both teams,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said. “They’re probably chomping at the bit to move into that second slot, and we’re right in the hunt for a run down the stretch here.”
New Mexico will be questing for revenge for its last two matchups with CSU, as the Rams took down UNM last year at The Pit for their first win there since 1998, as well as earlier this season in a low-scoring turnover-fest the Rams won 44-38 at Moby Arena.
While the last game between these two teams was offensively ugly, Williams found a few bright spots in his team’s first conference victory, mainly that it was indeed a victory.
“It was a thing of beauty on winning,” Williams said. “Everybody says it was an ugly game, but it depends on what you want. It wasn’t pretty on the offensive end, but the defensive end our kids were outstanding. We’re going to have to be the same outstanding defensive team in The Pit, even more so.”
The Pit itself has always been a notoriously hostile venue for visitors, featuring a packed home crowd nearly every night. According to Williams, the arena provides extra motivation for his team to bring its A-game in front of a likely sold-out building.
“They’re going to have 7,000 fans there tomorrow,” Williams predicted. “In the women’s game, we don’t get a lot of those environments, so our kids will be ready to go.”
But the infamous arena certainly makes it difficult for visitors to walk away with a victory some nights, which can become an opponent in and of itself.
“That’s probably one of the toughest places I’ve ever been,” CSU forward Emilie Hesseldal said of the Lobos’ home court. “When we went there last year, I’ve never played in front of a crowd like that. But it’s fun, I’m excited to go there.”
According to Williams, a heightened offensive efficacy will be key this time around. The Rams turned it over 12 times in the first half alone last time against the Lobos while shooting just 33 percent in their win at Moby.
“We have to be more effecient, we can’t turn it over like we did the first time, and when we get the opportunity to make an open shot, you’ve got to convert,” Williams said. “On the road it’s about making shots.”
But the Rams must be sharper defensively, too. Though they held New Mexico to just 38 points last time, that was without forward Khadijah Shumpert in the Lobos’ lineup. Upon returning from injury, the junior has given New Mexico a huge boost athletically, leading her team in rebounds with 6.3 per game that includes 2.5 offensive boards while chipping in 11.2 points per game on an incredible .535 shooting percentage.
“She’s really tenacious on the glass,” Williams said of Shumpert. “If we don’t get a body on her and sit on her leg she’ll jump right over us and score.”
With both teams competing for optimal Mountain West tournament seeding, expect to see a full-on battle Wednesday night. But despite the possible playoff implications of the game, CSU is sticking with its philosophy of facing its opponent to beat them for no reason other than winning itself.
“We can’t get too carried away with anything other than one possession at a time against a New Mexico team that will be hungry. They always are,” Williams said.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in Albuquerque and the game will be streamed on the Mountain West Network.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @samlounz.