Mesa women cruise past Highlands

Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference basketball is a test of which teams can play well on consecutive nights.

The second-night results can go a long way toward deciding a conference championship. Early this season, the second night has been a struggle for the young Colorado Mesa women’s basketball team.

All that changed Saturday night.

The Mavs (6-2, 3-1 RMAC) played one of their most complete games of the season in an 83-55 victory over New Mexico Highlands at Brownson Arena. Good ball movement, efficient offense, hard-nosed defense — and only eight turnovers — allowed the Mavs to win their 39th consecutive home game without a loss since Taylor Wagner took over.

Taking care of the ball allowed the Mavericks to run their offense and take high-percentage shots, even against Highlands’ zone defense. Mesa shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and 45.6 percent overall.

Against the zone, the 3-point shooting took over and the Mavericks rebounded well against it, with a dozen offensive rebounds. When Highlands switched to man-to-man, the post players had a field day. Mesa’s balance showed — the Mavericks hit 10 of 24 from the 3-point line and scored 22 points in the paint.

“We talk about any time we face a zone, that encourages the 3-point shooting, so we shoot it, but we’ve got to keep possessions alive, so we’ve got to get in there and rebound,” Wagner said. “That’s where we get those put-backs or a broken play for a 3 real quick. I thought our post players did a real good job tonight.”

The four post players combined for 20 of CMU’s 40 rebounds and Mesa blocked six shots against the smaller Cowgirls. Ashley Stevens, a 5-foot-10 junior forward, played 15 solid minutes in the second half with eight points, four rebounds and two steals.

“I was more in my area,” she said. “I’ve always played a post, never really played on the perimeter, so I’m trying to figure that out. When we run four out, one in, I either play a 4 outside or a 5 inside. It’s a little bit of an adjustment.”

Saturday, she was the 5 and looked clearly more comfortable.

“They didn’t really push you, and we got good position in front,” she said. “Just make moves. They didn’t double and collapse, so it was easier one-on-one.”

The Mavericks opened a 34-25 lead at halftime and, much like they did Friday, went on an early run in the second half. This time, though, they didn’t let up as they stretched the lead.

“We’ve struggled the second night and we’ve been really shaky but we rolled over the second half from last night into tonight and had to play with energy,” said sophomore guard Erin Reichle, who led all players with 25 points. “We brought it.

“It’s like Coach says, once they’re down, we’re not out of the woods. We have to keep going and can’t stop until they stop. I think we did a good job of that.”

It was a five-point game, 38-33, less than four minutes into the second half when the Mavericks made their move.

Stevens was fouled and hit a pair of free throws and Shanna Halalilo buried a baseline jumper in transition. Reichle followed with a 3 in transition and Stevens grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer and hit the bucket.

Right after Stevens’ follow, Laurel Kasel got an open look and hit a 3 from the corner for a 50-33 lead. Stevens stepped in front of a pass on defense for another steal, and with 12:46 to play, Reichle took a skip pass and hit yet another 3 against Highlands’ zone for a 53-35 lead. They methodically built the lead to 31 points with 5:21 to play when Kasel found Halalilo inside for a bucket and a 74-43 lead.

Mesa attacked the basket when Highlands came out of its zone and got to the line 25 times, making 21 free throws, one more than Highlands attempted, another key to success.

“We get more comfortable every game,” Wagner said.

Reichle agreed: “It’s definitely a good thing we’re taking big steps.”

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