UTRGV drops double-overtime decision to NMSU in WAC championship

Texas-Rio Grande Valley guard Quynne Huggins (11) lays up the ball past New Mexico State guard Monique Mills (21) during a NCAA college basketball Western Athletic Conference Women's Tournament championship game Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

New Mexico State, the No. 1 seed in the WAC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas, finished off UMKC in overtime on Friday. Surprisingly, the team had enough legs under it to play and win in two overtimes in the WAC Tournament title game.

The Aggies won the war of attrition, and the WAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, in a 76-73 victory over the second-seeded UTRGV Vaqueros in double overtime on Saturday afternoon.

Texas-Rio Grande Valley head coach Lane Lord speaks with players during a time out against New Mexico State during a NCAA college basketball Western Athletic Conference Women’s Tournament championship game Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

“Both teams were in the same situation, playing three games in three days,” UTRGV coach Lane Lord said over the phone. “This was one of the best basketball games that we’ve ever been a part of. We’re playing the best team in our league. They’ve won 16 games in a row coming in with two of the best players in mid-major basketball. We had three chances to win the game and the ball just didn’t bounce our way. We played our tails off.”

UTRGV built a seven-point second-half lead due in large part to its seniors. Guard Idil Turk (15 points) had no fear hitting big shots from the outside. Forward Madison Northcutt hauled in seven of her 14 rebounds in the second half.

Northcutt, a graduate student, made the WAC All-Tournament team following the game Saturday. Northcutt averaged 12.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and two blocks over three games in Las Vegas.

With the Vaqueros trailing by two points, guard Quynne Huggins connected on an important 3-pointer. Not only did Huggins’ 3-point shot gave her team the lead in the third quarter, but it also spurred a 9-0 run to give UTRGV a 51-44 advantage with 1:33 to play in the period.

After bumping her head on the hardwood going for a loose ball late in the first half, Huggins finished with a team-high 19 points. She made 5 of 6 3-pointers Saturday.

“For her (Huggins) to have a great finish to her season is awesome,” Lord said. “We got down 11-3 (in the first half) and she brought us back almost single-handedly. She’s always done a great job for us.”

UTRGV (18-14) could not solve New Mexico State’s 1-2 punch of Brooke Salas and Gia Pack. Salas scored 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, her 20th double-double of the season. Pack was not far behind Salas, recording 22 points on her way to securing the 2019 WAC Tournament MVP award.

New Mexico State (26-6) won both meetings versus UTRGV in conference play this season.

“They are very hard to guard,” Lord said. “We held them (NMSU) to 58 points in regulation, which is one of their lowest totals this season. Our defense has been outstanding all year long. It’s what has kept us in games. We did everything we had to do to win this game. A free throw here, a block out there. We had a layup to win it in the first overtime, but the ball just didn’t go in the hole.”

The Vaqueros proved a lot of doubters wrong this season. The WAC’s preseason coaches poll selected UTRGV to finish fifth in the conference while the WAC’s preseason media poll placed UTRGV to take seventh in the league.

Not only did UTRGV outperform outsiders’ expectations in 2018-19, the program was a heartbeat away from clinching its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in Lord’s first year on the job.

Texas-Rio Grande Valley forward Megan Johnson (34) moves the ball between New Mexico State guard Aaliyah Prince (23) and Gia Pack (30) during a NCAA college basketball Western Athletic Conference Women’s Tournament championship game Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

“When you get hired that late (May 21, 2018) in the calendar year, I had to call all the players even though they were already gone for the summer,” Lord said. “You call every player and try to start building relationships with them. It could go one or two ways with a new coach and a new coaching staff. To these seniors’ credit, they left their mark on the program. They believed in us and we believed in them. To break a lot of school and individual records in our first year says a lot about our kids. We wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament so bad for them because they deserved it.”

As for the prospects of playing postseason basketball, Lord said the program is waiting on a call from either the WNIT or the WBI.