After long break, Lobo women suddenly busy

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Ken Sickenger, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
·3 min read
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Feb. 23—Rested and ready, or a little on the rusty side?

Either description would be understandable for the University of New Mexico women's basketball team, which tips off a two-game Mountain West Conference series Tuesday night at Air Force.

The Lobos (9-2, 6-2) have been on an extended COVID-19-related break that included a week spent in isolation in Fort Collins, Colorado. UNM's last game was a win over San Diego State on Feb. 5 and coach Mike Bradbury admits his team is beyond eager to get back on the court.

"We're ready to go," Bradbury said Monday. "I really don't know what we'll look like at this point but we're excited to play a basketball game. Hopefully, we can pull things together for a few weeks and get on some kind of roll. This would be a good time for it."

UNM is scheduled to play four games in a seven-day span: Tuesday and Wednesday at Air Force and Sunday-Monday at Utah State. The Mountain West tournament is set to start March 7 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Despite a stop-and-start season during which UNM has played all its games outside of New Mexico and has had 10 canceled or postponed because of COVID issues, the Lobos remain near the top of the Mountain West standings. Colorado State (14-2, 10-2) leads the way. It is followed by Fresno State (14-7, 12-4) and UNM, teams with identical league winning percentages but a large disparity in games played.

Playing fewer games will not work in New Mexico's favor in any tiebreaker situation, but the Lobos can still nail down a good seeding position for the league tournament with a strong finish against Air Force (5-13, 2-10) and Utah State (4-15, 2-12).

First things first.

UNM will be short-handed against the Falcons because a player who tested positive for COVID in Fort Collins has not yet cleared safety protocols. Bradbury declined to identify the player but said he is hopeful she'll be cleared in time to play at Utah State.

The Lobos have gone largely with an eight-player rotation in MWC play and could have to make significant adjustments if the affected player is one of those eight. Bradbury said his coaching staff has been making contingency plans for such a possibility throughout the season.

"We've practiced with different lineups just in case," he said. "I think most teams have done that. There's just so much uncertainty."

Regardless of which lineup Bradbury employs, ball security will be a primary focus against Air Force. The Falcons do not score much but have excelled at keeping scores low with defensive pressure. They lead the Mountain West in steals (11.1 per game) and convert many into transition baskets.

"We have to limit turnovers," Bradbury said. "If we can go five-on-five, I think we can defend them. If we start turning the ball over and giving up layups, then we're in trouble."

Air Force is led by Riley Snyder, who lit up UNM for a career-best 34 points in the Pit last season. Still, Bradbury believes point guard Briana Autry is the key to the Falcons' attack.

"We have to locate her, especially in transition," he said. "She makes them go."

EMPTY STANDS IN LAS VEGAS: The Mountain West announced Monday that fans will not be permitted at the league tournament due to coronavirus concerns. A conference statement said new information regarding virus variants played into the decision.