Free throws lift Zias past Lady Aggies

Eastern New Mexico University’s Elizabeth Richards jumps to block a shot by Oklahoma Panhandle State senior Nina Kuleff during Thursday’s game at Greyhound Arena. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Mickey Winfield: Freedom Newspapers

PORTALES — Thanks to solid free throw shooting down the stretch, the Eastern New Mexico University Zias have matched the best start in team history.

With senior guard Heather Brown leading the way, Eastern converted 11-of-13 free throws in the final 3:13 to hold off pesky Oklahoma Panhandle State 77-70 on Thursday in a non-conference game at Greyhound Arena.

Brown finished with a game-high 24 points, including 10-of-10 from the free throw line, as the Zias improved to 6-1, which matches last year’s all-time best start.

“We saved ourselves at the free throw line and did a good job there,” first-year Zias coach Linden Weese said. “I think that’s one of our strengths without question. We’re tough enough to get ourselves there, and we usually do a pretty good job once we get there.”

The Zias led most of the way, including by as much as 10 points twice in the first half, but were never able to put the Lady Aggies (1-7) away until the final moments.

“We would get a lead, and then we’d let them back in it,” Weese said. “I just don’t think we played hard tonight all the way through like we need to.”

ENMU forward Elizabeth Richards of Texico posted a double-double, compiling 15 points and 10 rebounds.

“As a team, I don’t know that we played all that great,” Richards said. “I think we just need to mature as a team, and be a little more disciplined. We lost a little bit of intensity, and we could just never get it all back.”

Richards also recorded four blocked shots and four steals.

Junior forward Sara Polson led the Lady Aggies with 17 points and senior Nina Kuleff added 11 points and 11 rebounds. Panhandle dropped its seventh game in a row since a season-opening win over New Mexico Highlands.

The Lady Aggies hit 6-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half, but still trailed the Zias 43-35 at the break.

“When anyone is 6-of-9 in the first half, it’s going to concern you,” Weese said. “We talked about going out and defending them from the start. We just weren’t out far enough. We came out in the second half, and made them put the ball on the floor more, and I think that helped us.”

Panhandle was 2-of-9 from long range in the second half.

Sophomore Lindsey Wood added nine points for the Zias, while senior Megan Ratliff and freshman Kristal Hill contributed eight points apiece.