Bulldogs return to Mountain West championship game

Fresno State's Maddi Utti guards New Mexico's LaTora Duff in the Bulldogs' Mountain West semifinal game on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 (Jesus Cano/The Collegian)

New Mexico had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds, only for Hanna Cavinder to take it right from their hands.

With the Lobos trailing 73-72 with 27 seconds left, Cavinder stole the ball from guard Jaedyn De La Cerda, and Aly Gamez knocked down two free throws to ice the game.

Haley Cavinder followed her sister Hanna with another crucial steal on the next New Mexico possession. But when Hanna missed both free throws, the game rested on a 3-point attempt from De La Cerda to tie the game.

It fell short, bouncing off the front rim and out.

It was one final instance of New Mexico not executing down the stretch, in a game decided by plays in the final minute.

“Give Fresno credit, they made the plays down the stretch to win,” New Mexico head coach Mike Bradbury said. “They’re hard to play against. I mean, they score the ball, and they’re the only team in the league to have two players of the year on the same team.”

And with that, No. 4 Fresno State held on to defeat No. 1 New Mexico, 77-72, Tuesday to advance to the Mountain West women’s basketball championship game.

“I really think it was our defense down the stretch,” Fresno State head coach Jaime White said. “Hanna grabbed the ball, and we came up with the ball in key positions. That’s really what we’ve been working on in the past week.”

“We had four, almost five players score in double figures and that’s what a championship team needs.”

Haley Cavinder, the newly named Mountain West Player of the Year, led Fresno State with 22 points. Her sister Hanna chipped in 13 points, and senior Maddi Utti recorded a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds).

Utti said the Bulldogs’ final defensive stops were inspired by what stood in front of them with a victory — another shot at the Mountain West tournament championship.

“Ever since the [championship] game last year, our goal was to get back and it’s finally here,” Utti said.

New Mexico crashed the offensive glass early on. The Lobos grabbed five offensive rebounds and scored 9 second chance points in the first quarter, helping it briefly take a 17-14 lead with 2:53 left in the quarter.

The Lobos led the conference in points per game and field goal percentage during the regular season, but struggled shooting in the first quarter. The team shot only 32% from the field and 2-for-10 from downtown.

The Bulldogs used a 7-0 run capped by Utti’s wide-open 3-pointer to retake a 21-17 lead after the first quarter.

New Mexico found its offensive groove in the second quarter. De La Cerda scored 5 straight points to give the Lobos a 22-21 lead. 

That kicked off a stretch where either team scored on eight of the next 10 possessions. The game displayed the offensive talents of both New Mexico and Fresno State — who are ranked as No. 1 and 2 in the conference in points per game.

“We knew it would be a tough game. New Mexico is extremely offensive-minded,” White said. 

Up 40-38 in the final seconds of the first half, Hanna Cavinder dribbled around a screen to her right and took contact with a layup to put the Bulldogs up 42-38 headed into the break.

The defenses for both teams took over in the third quarter. The Lobos forced 10 Bulldog turnovers and kept Fresno State to 3-for-11 shooting. 

The Bulldogs’ most costly turnovers came within 30 seconds in the third quarter. Up 50-46, Fresno State turned it over on a 3-on-1 fast break when Haley Cavinder’s pass was picked off by guard Ahlise Hurst. The Lobos went on their own fast break that ended in a LaTascya Duff 3-pointer.

The very next possession, the Bulldogs turned it over again. Duff scored a second time, converting a fast break layup to give the Lobos a 51-50 lead.

“Maybe we were thinking too much. We paused on some of our passing. We didn’t have good motion,” White said. “[Coming back], it was our kids realizing the moment a little bit. We don’t want to lose those leads to anyone and that’s something we’ll try to do in the next game.”

Fresno State trailed 53-50 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs remained in a scoring drought for three minutes until Haley Cavinder drained a 3-pointer and made a layup to give the team a lead.

Utti stole the following New Mexico pass and handed it off to Hanna Cavinder for a layup to give the Bulldogs a 57-54 lead. 

In a back-and-forth contest to the end, Haley Cavinder made a layup to break a tie at 70 with 1:37 left.

De La Cerda was fouled after a drive to the paint and made two free throws to tie the game. On the next Fresno State possession, Gamez was fouled inside the paint and headed to the free throw line.

Gamez made one of two free throws to make it a 73-72 game, setting the stage for Hanna Cavinder’s game-clinching steal.

Fresno State won the rebounding advantage after falling behind on the glass in the first quarter. White said heading into Tuesday, her team emphasized on rebounding, stopping the Lobos in transition and guarding the 3-point line.

“I think we had an urgency and a focus on rebounding. We also know we outrebounded these guys in three games. That was part of our formula to success,” White said.

New Mexico shot 32 3-point attempts and made 31% of them. The team also scored 9 fast break points to Fresno State’s 11.

Winning the rebounding, transition and perimeter battle put Fresno State in the championship game. The Bulldogs will face No. 7 seed Wyoming, who won its semifinal matchup against Boise State, 53-38. 

“Glad to be in the championship game, and we feel like we have some unfinished business,” White said.

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