Without star guard, Lobos hope for best in WNIT
It’s not the four-letter, 64-team tournament they were hoping for, but considering the circumstances it’s probably not all that bad to be exactly where they are.
The University of New Mexico’s women’s basketball team extends its season Thursday night by hosting Denver in the opening round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. It’s the first of what could be six games in the tournament between now and the nationally televised championship game April 6.
Thursday’s winner advances into the weekend’s round of 32 against either Loyola Marymount or Idaho, with a potential WNIT Sweet 16 matchup with Wyoming next week.
UNM is still trying to reinvent itself after losing all-conference point guard Aisia Robertson in the regular-season finale. The 5-foot-8 junior was averaging 14.3 points and a team-high 6.6 assists when she tore a knee ligament in the second half of a March 7 game against Wyoming in the Pit.
Her absence played a role in UNM’s 70-61 overtime loss to San Diego State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. The Lobos turned the ball over 17 times and lacked the depth in the backcourt to keep up with the Aztecs.
Sophomore Jaedyn De La Cerda is starting in Robertson’s place but it leaves just one regular sub coming off the bench to help the starting five; forward Antonia Anderson. Sophomore Madi Washington offers some relief for De La Cerda but averages just 13 minutes a game and had fewer than 10 in the San Diego State loss.
Travel ban: This is UNM’s seventh appearance in the WNIT and, historically, it means keeping the suitcases empty. In six previous bids to the tournament they’ve played 18 games. Of those, 16 have been played in either The Pit or Johnson Center on the main campus.
A 17th game was played in Rio Rancho at the Star Center and just one, a second-round 93-67 loss at Oregon in 2010, was played on the road.
Ante up: Home games in the WNIT come at a cost. First-round games come with a guarantee of $6,500 for the right to host. It goes up to $7,500 for a second-round game.
The fees help offset the cost of travel for the visiting teams, which are assured a travel cap of $12,000 for each round. The tournament pays the rest if the cost goes above the cap.
Makes sense: Unlike the NCAA Tournament, the WNIT allows every game to be played at the home venue of the host team. How the home teams are determined are, according to the WNIT’s guidelines, fan support, facility availability, host bids for each round and travel requirements.
The Lobos finished among the nation’s leaders in attendance this season, making them an obvious choice to remain at home as long as they stay alive.
Record: Speaking of crowd support, the WNIT’s 2001 championship game in the Pit between the Lobos and Ohio State drew a sellout of 18,018. It remains the largest crowd in the history of the tournament, which was founded in 1998.
The WNIT grew from 16 teams that first year to 32, then 40 and then to its current 64-team format in 2010. There are 32 at-large bids and 32 automatic spots, one for each conference whose top team from the regular season did not land a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos finished second in the Mountain West, earning the MWC’s only automatic WNIT spot.
Conference rivals Fresno State and Wyoming also made the field and are in the same 16-team bracket as UNM. Fresno State hosted Pacific Wednesday night and Wyoming hosts Northern Colorado on Thursday.