Nelson’s Lions tamed in NCAA tourney
The ride was sweet, but it came to a crashing halt.
Former Fallon standout and current University of Colorado-Colorado Springs women’s basketball coach Shawn Nelson’s club lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II tournament on Monday in Canyon, Texas.
UCCS, the second seed in the South Central Region, fell 96-69 to No. 1 seed West Texas A&M.
“It was a great environment and the place was packed,” Nelson said. “They played perfect. I’ve never coached against a team that shot that well in a game for 40 minutes.”
There was little Nelson could do for his club as the Buffs were lights out from the field all game. West Texas A&M, last year’s DII runner-up, was red-hot as the Buffs hit on 62.3 percent of their attempts including 58.8 percent from the 3-point line.
UCCS shot a respectable 41 percent from the field, but West Texas A&M was too much.
Nelson expected a high-scoring matchup as the two clubs were the top two scoring teams in their region and top 15 in the country.
“It was just one of those nights where you go ‘wow,’ this team is on fire,” he added. “We’ve been at that level at times this year, but you don’t expect that in a championship game.”
West Texas A&M built a 38-25 first half lead on the heels of 12 consecutive field goals and led 45-31 at halftime.
The Buffs led by 20 for the final 10 minutes of the second half and advances to the Elite Eight in South Dakota.
“I though it was going to be a high scoring game, but I didn’t think it would be that high,” Nelson said.
Nelson, though, brought a new philosophy of an up-tempo style, which led to a 26-7 record and the program’s most successful season ever.
The Mountain Lions finished second in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, lost in the RMAC tournament semifinal, but were rewarded with a No. 2 seed in the South Central Region of the NCAA Tournament.
“About midway through the second half … you start to reflect on all the firsts,” Nelson said. “Getting a No. 2 seed, everyone thought we were the best team in the RMAC, which says a lot. We had school records in wins, points, rebounds and all the individual accomplishments. It’s been a special year, especially for a team that was 13-15 last year.”
UCCS opened the NCAA Division II women’s tournament with a first-round win over No. 7 Colorado State-Pueblo, 73-63, on Friday and a second-round victory over sixth-seeded Colorado Christian, 83-77, on Saturday, who beat the Mountain Lions in the RMAC tourney.
UCCS used a 14-2 run in the second half to drop CSU-Pueblo after the teams entered halftime tied at 37. The Mountain Lions had four players score in double figures.
Against Colorado Christian, UCCS built a 10-point halftime lead thanks to a 13-2 run late in the first half.
The Mountain Lions opened the second half with an 8-2 run to push their lead to 49-33. Colorado Christian, though, tallied 16 unanswered points to trim the deficit to 69-63, but UCCS held on for the win.
“There are some many positives throughout the year,” Nelson said.
It was the first-ever appearance for the Mountain Lions in the tournament, thanks in part to Nelson’s up-tempo approach.
After spending three seasons at Central Washington, Nelson took over at UCCS, which has led on-court and off-court firsts.
His club has galvanized the school and recruiting, leading Nelson to say the number of women who want to play for the Mountain Lions has tripled in the past two weeks as the media attention grew and winning continued.
In addition, Nelson is also in consideration for a coaching gig with USA Basketball. He said the team will play in Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic during the summer.
But Nelson is also excited about the commitment from the school. He said UCCS is putting resources into the program to capitalize on this season’s success.
“It’s been great professionally for me,” Nelson added. “I’ve been asked to coach a U.S. team. Some things I don’t think I would’ve had the chance to do somewhere else.”
Yet, the next challenge is to continue the growth as Nelson loses five seniors including the RMAC’s Player of the Year, although he returns 10 freshmen and sophomores including the league’s POY runner-up.
“We return of sophomores and freshmen,” Nelson said. “We have a solid recruiting class coming in with solid shooters. I think the pieces are in place and we just have to surround them with good shooters.”