They didn't follow the scouting report. They didn't get good movement against the zone defense. They didn't hit free throws.
But when it counted Saturday night, the Colorado Mesa women's basketball team showed the grit it needed to come back from five points down in the final four minutes to beat Montana Western 61-55 to wrap up the Holiday Inn-Airport Thanksgiving Classic.
"One, it shows us that we can't come out slow," said junior forward Sierra McNicol, who made the go-ahead basket with 35 seconds to play. "It definitely sets off the rest of the half and luckily we were able to come back. We can't underestimate or think we've got it in the bag at the start of the game.
"We have to come out every night and be ready to work and be prepared. I also think it shows that in tight situations we can finish the game out by staying composed and relying on each other."
Montana Western's 2-3 zone defense caused the Mavericks all kinds of problems, mainly because they didn't attack the zone. Instead they passed the ball around the perimeter and forced shots.
"We kind of have this thing where we kind of get scared, you can see it in all of us, including myself," point guard Sydni Brandon said. "Nobody wants to shoot it and we play hot potato like Coach says, and when everybody starts to be aggressive, we're back. That's our thing, everybody on our team can drive and kick out and handle the ball and that's when we start hitting our shots."
With the Mavericks shooting only 26% from the field in the first half against the zone, it fueled the Bulldogs' offense. Montana Western, which won the NAIA national championship last season, moved the ball quickly and found open spots, hitting layups on backdoor cuts and open 3-pointers.
"That's the tough part, we knew exactly what was coming," CMU coach Taylor Wagner said. "We totally messed up in the first half. We talked about being aggressive, and we've had a theme, every Saturday game we come out and get behind by a bunch. Tonight we were lucky enough to come back."
They came back from a 13-point deficit by playing better defense, challenging shots and rotating to cut off the backdoor passes. They cut the Bulldogs' lead to 44-40 by the end of the third quarter, and Daniella Turner hit a pair of 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter, then Brandon hit a jumper from the free-throw line.
She was fouled after a steal and hit both free throws to make it 53-50 with 3:58 remaining, then tied up the ball to get the Mavs the possession back.
With 2:20 to play, Kylyn Rigsby buried a deep 3-pointer from the wing and the Mavs were down 55-53.
The Bulldogs attacked the basket and appeared to draw contact, but there was no call. Montana Western coach Lindsay Woolley was hit with a technical for protesting, and Brandon tied it with a pair of free throws.
After Turner missed a jumper on the possession after the technical, the Bulldogs tried to go backdoor again, but the Mavericks closed down the lane and Brandon stepped in front of the pass and took off down the floor with 1:04 to play.
After a timeout, Brandon worked the ball until she found a seam in the zone and drove the lane. McNicol cut hard to the basket on the right side of the floor for a pretty bounce pass and layup for a 57-55 lead.
McNicol is left-handed, but worked all summer on scoring from the right side of the floor, and it paid off.
"I think I used my left hand," she said. "It was a good drive by Syd and everyone cleared out. It was a good pass. All credit to Syd on that one."
Brandon hit a pair of free throws to go up four, 59-55, with 15.8 seconds left.
She came up with her fifth steal of the game and was knocked hard to the floor in front of the scorer's table by Gracey Meyer, who was called for an intentional foul and Brandon again made both free throws.
"I had to lock in in the second half," said Brandon, who finished with 12 points, as did McNicol, and hit all 10 of her free throws. "I was worse on the scout in the second half than I was in the first half and a couple of times I had to say, 'Sorry, Coach,' so I had to lock in and finish it out."
The Mavericks (4-2) know they have to do a better job playing to the scouting report, and figure they're going to get plenty of work on their zone offense this week to prepare for RMAC play.
"There were times no one wanted to take the shot," Wagner said. "Kelsey (Siemons) is (confident in her shot) but in a zone she's kind of hidden a little bit. We've got to work on that because I have a feeling that's going to be the theme for us the rest of the year."
Western Colorado 78, University of the Southwest 53: Samantha Coleman hit seven 3-pointers and finished with 25 points as the Mountaineers broke open a relatively close game in the second quarter.
Western (2-2) got 10 points each from Gabie Doud and Jessie Erickson and outrebounded the Mustangs 51-25. Western's bench chipped in 33 points.