Mavs face Midwestern State, their foe in last year's title game, in South Central opener
AMARILLO, Texas — Instant classic.
It’s a term used quite a bit in sports after a close, meaningful game.
When it comes to NCAA Division II women’s college basketball, the 2013 South Central Region championship game fits the criteria.
With a berth in the Elite Eight on the line, in front of an overflow crowd at Brownson Arena, Colorado Mesa and Midwestern State (Texas) threw haymaker after haymaker at one another for 38½ minutes.
In a one-point game, the Mavericks made three key defensive plays in the final 1:21 for a 69-65 victory. Two blocked shots and one steal led to a layup and three free throws and CMU’s first trip to the Elite Eight.
“As a coach, I had about 18 strokes on the sideline,” Midwestern State coach Noel Johnson said. “As a spectator, everybody that I talked to that watched it was really complimentary of both teams and how hard they played, and it was one of the best games they’d seen in a long time in women’s basketball.”
Eight lead changes. Four ties, including 31-31 at halftime.
This afternoon could be Instant Classic II when Colorado Mesa (28-1) faces Midwestern State (18-11) in the quarterfinals of the South Central Region at the First United Bank Center in Canyon, Texas. Tip-off is at 1:30 p.m. (MDT).
“I pretty much remember a lot of the personnel,” CMU point guard Christen Lopez said. “They’re definitely all back; I think they lost one girl. I just remember playing them and everything after the game, how much it meant to us and how much it meant to them.
“They were telling us they were going to be back, and we’re back. I think it’s going to be a great game.”
Much like last season, the teams are a stark contrast in styles. The Mustangs will press full-court and want to run.
“They’re athletic, they rebound,” CMU coach Taylor Wagner said. “Their defense is great. I don’t think there’s a team in the RMAC that’s as athletic as them. It’ll be a different look for us. We’ve got to be ready to go from the beginning, from the tip.”
The Mavericks, who love to score in transition, are also just fine with running one of their dozens of half-court sets.
“They’ve got great production out of the starting five, they’re real disciplined,” Johnson said. “Real disciplined. Great shooters, really good shooters.
“They run a ton of sets, all of them are based on reads, and those kids are so smart and read and react. They’re well-coached.”
One thing that stood out about the Mustangs last season was their youth. The majority of the team returns, led by Andrea Carter, a 5-foot-10 returning All-American forward who averages 16.4 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. And she’s only a junior.
Kirsti Degelia, a 5-8 senior guard, scored 20 points in the title game last season and averages 11.1 points a game. Diana Jones, who has 131 assists this season, is yet another returning starter.
In fact, the Mustangs return all five starters from last season, although Shambreka Jones, a 6-1 forward, has come off the bench all season. Taylor Dowd, a 6-3 junior, moved into the starting lineup in the fourth game of the season.
The early season was a little rough for Midwestern State, which started out 3-3, including a 1-1 start against RMAC teams, beating CSU-Pueblo but losing to Adams State.
“These kids were having to learn to play with a target on their back and they’ve never had to do that.,” Johnson said of the Mustangs, who were No. 10 in the nation in the preseason poll, but dropped out after that .500 start.
“We’ve always been the chaser and not the chased, so it was an adjustment for the kids to have to back up what they’ve done in the past.”
They figured it out, though.
“Seeing the games at the beginning of the year, they’re a different team now than at the beginning,” Wagner said. “I don’t know what it was, but they’re playing at a high level right now. That’s all that matters for them and for us. We’ve got to prepare for that.”
The Mavericks got their first look at the impressive First United Bank Center on Thursday in a high-intensity 55-minute practice.
Wagner wants his team to play with a bit of a chip on its collective shoulder and come out playing like the defending regional champion.
“I think a lot of people wrote us off because we lost those four seniors and two All-Americans, and I don’t think they saw us getting back to where we were,” he said before the Mavs left Grand Junction. “It’s kind of nice to see the girls do what they did this year. What they did is hard. I think a lot of people have made excuses, ‘Oh, the RMAC isn’t as strong.’
“There were a few teams that were better this year than they were last year. ... I think that’s a disservice to the girls for what they did and why they won. They won because they worked extremely hard and they put the time in and they bought into the system.
“It’s very hard to win 25 games in a row; it doesn’t matter what level. I even said that to the girls, we should play with a chip on our shoulder. It’s great that we’re back, and we’ve got a little further to go, but there’s still a lot of things we can prove to everybody.”