Don’t count Mavs out next season
Not many gave the Colorado Mesa women’s basketball team much of a chance this season to duplicate the success of 2013.
Two All-Americans graduated. CMU coach Taylor Wagner landed two senior transfers to fill the holes in the starting lineup.
Two key senior reserves graduated. This squad never developed one or two consistent scorers off the bench, but several players combined to get the job done.
An inkling of what could happen came early, when the Mavericks almost stunned Brigham Young University in an exhibition game, leading the Cougars until the final seven minutes of the game in a 70-66 loss.
BYU, 26-6, plays North Carolina State in the first round for the NCAA Division I women’s tournament.
Still, the RMAC coaches picked them to finish second in the league.
It didn’t set well with the Mavericks, who won 25 straight games, coming up only a few possessions shy of running the table during the regular season. They ran away with their second straight conference title, winning 21 of 22 RMAC games after a 4-0 nonconference start.
As the wins piled up, the Mavericks shot up the national rankings, from No. 13 in the preseason coaches poll to No. 8 the first week.
They reached No. 2 for six straight weeks before their six-point loss to Fort Lewis, dropping two spots to No. 4, where they’ll stay until the final poll is released April 11.
They ran through the RMAC Shootout and hoisted their second straight trophy. They’ll add “2014” to the banner at Brownson Arena.
Even with only one loss, the Mavericks were met with some skepticism at the regional tournament. One television reporter commented after the Mavs’ first game that they “didn’t play a very tough schedule.”
After beating Midwestern State in ugly fashion late, the Mavericks put on a show in the semifinals with a dominant victory over Tarleton State. They showed just how good their defense is, allowing Kiara Wright only 14 points. The sports information directors in the South Central Region voted Wright the regional player of the year.
West Texas A&M knew what it was up against, and the Buffs played one of their best defensive games of the season to hold off CMU 59-56 to deny the Mavericks a return trip to the Elite Eight.
Before the game, a group of Texas TV reporters was talking about how good the game should be, and at halftime, I overheard one say, “That team’s going to be hard to beat.” Someone asked if he meant West Texas. “No, Mesa.”
Earlier in the week, Wagner was asked about being only one game away from the national quarterfinals and if the experience of playing in a regional title game would help his team.
“It’s huge. We were there last year. It’s a goal of ours to make it back to the Elite Eight,” he said. “That last game in the Elite Eight we didn’t play to our potential, and I think it’s important to get back there and show everybody we’re worthy of being there.”
And they were worthy of being there — they just didn’t finish a couple of plays that would have extended the season.
There’s no shame in that.
West Texas A&M senior guard Casey Land said in the postgame press conference that Mesa was the toughest team the Buffs had played all season, as Devin Griffin, a terrific forward who will give the national-field teams fits with her strength and athleticism, emphatically nodded.
The title game was what you expected from two teams who so desperately wanted to reach the Elite Eight, two teams who knew they were good enough to get there and two teams who deserved to advance.
Mesa post player Hannah Pollart, who made the all-tournament team, playing her best basketball of the season in the final weekend, always has fresh bruises on her arms and especially her knees. She added a nasty gash on her left bicep.
Aubry Boehme came out of the locker room at halftime, and from the opposite end line I could see the mouse under her left eye. Her eye was red from icing it at halftime to reduce the swelling, and by the end of the game, the knot the size of a quarter was turning purple.
It was not a game for the timid. Players hit the floor for loose balls. They wrestled for rebounds. They stepped in and took charges. They did everything they could to win.
After the game, both coaches agreed they should be playing later this month in Erie, Pa., that the matchup was worthy of an Elite Eight appearance, not just the game to get one team there.
In the past two seasons, the Mavericks have won 61 of 65 games. They haven’t won the big one, though, and that will drive the returning players and Wagner this spring, summer and fall.
The roster, again, will be vastly different next season.
The goal, however, will remain the same, winning a national championship, even though Wagner has to replace his top six, including guard Sharaya Selsor, sure to pick up All-American honors.
Something tells me Wagner will find those replacements.
Something tells me the Mavs won’t be picked to win the RMAC next season.
Something also tells me not to count them out.