Manhattan, KS -- In the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament, a No. 15 seed has never taken down a No. 2 seed. New Mexico State has never had a win in the NCAA tournament. Saturday afternoon the Aggies came dangerously close to changing that.
However, the Stanford Cardinal contorted themselves out of a major upset with a spirited fourth quarter that quickly brought New Mexico State back down to earth. Stanford moves on to the second round with a 72-64 victory. Karlie Samuelson held the Cardinal down in their struggling first half, then Alanna Smith burst into life in the second half to rip the unlikely victory out of Aggie's grasp.
New Mexico State packed the first punch and it got Stanford right in the gut. They may have been smaller in stature and rankings but the Aggies confidence cast a shadow over the Cardinal larger than a forest of Stanford trees.
If there is one thing this team knows how to do, it is winning. Coming off a 17-game win streak, undefeated conference season and its third conference title in as many years, New Mexico State couldn't care less that it was playing the giant that is Stanford.
They came out to win and it showed as the Aggie women made five of six baskets to start the game. Meanwhile, the Cardinal were left floundering and unable to score.
It took five offensive rebounds for Stanford to finally get the ball to drop with the team's first points of the game. Despite their effort to grab the boards the opportunities continued to be missed. Stanford was out of sync and unable to keep up with New Mexico State’s rapid pace.
Moriah Mack and Brooke Salas put their stamp on the court early in the game, scoring all but seven of the Aggies' 23 points. Collectively, New Mexico State was shooting 62% to Stanford’s mere 36% in the opening quarter.
The Cardinal managed to tie the game at 24 to open the second quarter, but still, the Aggies kept pounding away and outshone their opponents.
Back-to-back steals finally allowed Stanford to take a one-point lead with three minutes to go in the second stanza. But 15 seconds of being behind was all that New Mexico State could handle.
Mack struck again with a made jumper to pull back ahead and lead another Aggie surge to close out the half. The Cardinal could only manage two points to New Mexico State’s 10 in the final minutes.
The Aggies confidence was already bursting at Bramlage Coliseum’s seams. But after Zaire Williams launched a missile from behind the arc off of a missed free throw to beat the buzzer, it blasted the roof off the arena. New Mexico State had their eyes firmly set on an upset with a 38-31 lead at half time.
Samuelson had been keeping the Cardinal afloat for most of the first half. She was also the one to pull them back to the surface after sinking at the end of the second quarter, plus two more three-pointers to start the third.
That brought her total to five, and so far the three point shots were the only thing keeping Stanford in the game. That began to slowly change in the third quarter. With Smith at the helm, the Cardinal began to match the Aggies’ aggression and stayed nipping at their heels.
The teams traded blows throughout the quarter but all the buzz was still surrounding the underdog: New Mexico State.
Luckily for Stanford though, they finished the third better than the second. With an aggressive drive to the basket, Samuelson picked up a foul as the seconds winded down. Her two made free throws pulled the Cardinal back within one with one period to play.
There was just 10 minutes before either history would be made by New Mexico State or Stanford could breathe one huge sigh of relief.
Now, for the first time in the game, the momentum was with Stanford. They took the lead three times in the first three quarters but that amounted to just 41 seconds. The Aggies were always there to answer back -- not this time, though.
Smith responded to a triple from Salas with one of her own to begin the takeover. With another two points from Smith, the Cardinal took the lead and this time they weren't giving it away again easily.
They stretched to a five-point lead and a tremendous block by Brittany McPhee dashed the Aggies fairytale run hopes before they could even begin.
The Stanford women eventually regained their composure from the first hit that winded them for most of the game. After scoring just 10 points in the paint for the first half, they came back to score 24 in the paint the latter half. Their aggressive nature was back and they finally appeared like the higher seed.
New Mexico State was now looking like that 15 seed despite all the efforts of Salas who announced herself to NCAA basketball, tying her career high with 26 points.
Stanford managed to maintain their lead when it mattered and pulled away with to a 72-64 victory. Smith lead the way with 19 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks, while Samuelson added 17 points and McPhee contributed 16 points and 5 steals.
Stanford’s narrow escape leads them to the second round where they will face Kansas State on Monday.