CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson
By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico
PORTALES — The basketball gods don’t give many breaks to a 5-foot-4 player. So Vanessa O’Neal’s got to make her own.
The Zias senior did just that Monday, making small plays throughout and the biggest play at the end — an assist to Cat Clay for a 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left in a 69-68 victory over Texas Woman’s University at Greyhound Arena.
Tori Northcutt had 16 points to lead four in double figures. Clay had 13 points, and freshman guard Sorrel Huntington tied a career high with 10 points to go along with Til-Lois Fifer’s 10-point night.
O’Neal, meanwhile, finished with just four points on 2-of-9 shooting. But she had six rebounds, five assists and three steals — all team highs — on a night where Eastern (5-7) would need them all.
“Her energy,” Zia coach Linden Weese said, “on both ends, was what got us off and running.”
With 12 minutes remaining in the second half and the Zias nursing a 50-45 lead, O’Neal had a layup attempt blocked by the Pioneers’ Jessica Hanna.
Nothing new for O’Neal, who stole the outlet pass back and gave the Zias another chance on offense.
“I get blocked a lot,” said O’Neal, a junior from Clovis. “I’ve got to get back on defense and make up for it.”
Hannah Altheide made a pair of free throws on the ensuing possession, and O’Neal later hit a driving layup to give the Zias their biggest lead at 58-45.
But most of the final 10 minutes belonged to TWU (4-4), which rode the perimeter attack of Jessica Durr (19 points) and Megan Hashman (13) to cut the Zia lead to three in the final 1:50.
The Zias missed a pair of front ends on bonus free throws, and the Pioneers answered by going 3-of-4 from the line to tie the game.
With both teams out of timeouts, Durr scored on a layup with 13 seconds remaining. The Pioneers kept the inbounds from Northcutt on the play, and O’Neal had to come up one more time.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to penetrate,’” O’Neal said, knowing Clay would spot up in the left corner. “I knew (her defender) was going to lay off her.”
And Clay, who had never scored more than 12 points as a Zia without hitting a 3-pointer, drained her only trey of the night. Texas Woman’s had one more chance, but Hanna got swamped by a triple team on the left corner and her final shot went short.
“We leave Cat Clay, who is their top shooter and leading scorer,” Pioneers coach Beth Jillson said, “and they made us pay.”
Jillson would have been happier with the comeback, except that the Pioneers led by nine in the first half, and she felt they never should have trailed by double figures.
“You’ve got to give the credit to Eastern,” Jillson said. “They had more fight, they played with more intensity. They did a good job going to the basket.”
Weese, who pointed out Northcutt’s effort on defense as an unsung aspect Monday, said the last 10 days — three road wins, a Saturday loss on a buzzer-beater and a win in the final six seconds on Monday — are big for the team.
“It helps a lot,” O’Neal said. “We saw what we can do, and it’s big because we’ve got the South (division play) coming up.”
The Zias return to action Jan. 2 with a 2 p.m. home game against Fort Lewis.