LAS VEGAS — For 27 consecutive games, Colorado State always had an answer. Every basket. Every run. Every game. The Rams found a way.
Friday afternoon at the Thomas and Mack Center, in the final game No. 22 CSU needed to win to secure an NCAA Tournament berth, the Rams came up with one final late-game run when they needed it, erasing a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off No. 2 seed Fresno State 55-54 and claim the program first’s Mountain West tournament title since 2002 in dramatic fashion.
After getting fouled on a jump shot with 3.3 seconds to go, junior forward Ellen Nystrom knocked down two free throws to give the Rams their first lead since the 18:46 mark of the first half. Inbounding the ball just inside half court, the Bulldogs got one final look, but Shauquanna Collins’ running layup banked off the backboard, hit the side of the rim and bounced out as CSU’s bench rushed the court in celebration.
“What our team did doesn’t surprise me,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said. “You don’t win 30 games by laying down and folding. So the resiliency that our group showed, these three to my left, I couldn’t be more happy for a basketball team. These kids have worked so hard to get to this spot. And they’ve wanted it so bad. And when you’re supposed to do something, I think one of tougher things to do in all of sports is to do what you’re supposed to do, and these kids did that. So I love my basketball team. I love my basketball team.”
Nystrom finished the game with just those two points, six rebounds and 16 assists. Tournament MVP Elin Gustavsson added 10 points of her own, but the surprise star of the game was redshirt sophomore Stine Austgulen, who came off the bench to score a game-high 14 points while hitting 4 of her 5 3-point attempts.
Fresno State was paced by Alex Furr’s 12 points, along with 11 each from Moriah Faulk and Breanna Knishka.
For much of the game, a defense that had stifled opponents all tournament — and all season long — fell apart in dramatic fashion, while CSU’s top-ranked scoring offense missed open looks it had buried all season. That recipe, combined with a fired-up Fresno State squad, made for a disastrous first half in which the Rams looked all but toast.
CSU, who wasn’t a lock for an at-large bid after entering the game with an RPI of 43 but just one win against the RPI top-100, started off about as poorly as Fresno State could have hoped, falling behind 11-3 in the first 4 1/2 minutes. The Rams were able cut the deficit to three, 19-16, on a layup by reserve guard Stine Austgulen at the end of the quarter, but the Bulldogs again came out firing in the second quarter.
Led by a balanced scoring effort, Fresno State outscored CSU 17-6 in the second stanza, taking a 36-22 lead into the halftime break. In the half, CSU shot just 28 percent from the field while turning the ball over seven times.
After what was surely an emotional locker room at the break, the Rams finally showed some signs of life in the third quarter, cutting the Bulldogs lead to eight heading into the final stanza.
Sparked by clutch 3-point shooting from Jamie Patrick and Austgulen, the Rams were able to pull within two on a layup from Keyora Wharry with 6:34 to go. The Bulldogs quickly extended the lead back to five, but CSU responded by cutting it to one on a layup from Emilie Hesseldal with 2:51 to go.
Austgulen, who came into the game averaging just 3.2 points per contest, eclipsed her career-high and was the main reason CSU even had a shot to win the game late.
(Photos Courtesy of NCAA Photos)
After trading missed baskets over the next two-plus minutes, CSU got the ball with 11.5 seconds to. Fresno State elected to foul twice in the final 10 seconds to run time off of the clock. The strategy backfired though, with Nystrom getting into a shooting motion right as Fresno State’s Moriah Faulk fouled her.
Despite her shooting struggles — Nystrom missed all seven of her field goal attempts — Williams said there was no doubt in his mind that she would bury both shots.
The Swede calmly knocked down the two biggest free throws of her career, sending the Rams to the Big Dance for the first time in more than a decade.
“There was really no doubt,” Williams said. “Wasn’t she cool on that line? Ellen was cool on that line. What a champion she is.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.