Survive and advance.
It’s a term you’ll often hear when March rolls around. For the Colorado State University women’s basketball team, it has defined a journey that now sees the Rams playing in their first Mountain West Conference tournament championship game in 13 years. However, surviving their third meeting with rival Wyoming in less than three weeks took a little longer than everyone expected.
Carried by junior guard Gritt Ryder’s 23 points and two late free throws from seldom-used sophomore Hanne Mestdagh, the Rams survived a triple-overtime thriller to beat the Cowgirls 95-92 and move on to face Fresno State in Saturday’s championship game.
And after splitting both meetings earlier this year, round three of the Border War lived up to the every bit of hype surrounding it.
As expected it was a defensive battle from the opening tip with just 20 points combined between the teams in the first 10 minutes. However, from there it looked as though the Rams would have control of this one, holding the Cowgirls without a field goal for the final 8:53 of the first half to take a 32-20 lead into the break.
But this one was a long, long way from being over.
The Cowgirls methodically chipped away at the deficit, cutting it to just three on a free throw by Fallon Lewis with 4:21 to play in regulation.
Still, CSU led by 7 with just 1:2o to play after a jumper from Ryder. Then things began to spiral out of control. After pulling down her own miss on a free throw, conference Co-Freshman of the Year was fouled. But in the process of controlling the ball, Nystrom knocked Wyoming guard Chelan Landry to the floor with an elbow to the chin.
From there the teams continued to trade buckets until two free throws from Cowgirl guard Kaitlyn Mileto tied it with four seconds to play. Dribbling the full length of the court, Ryder had a great look from just behind the arc that bounced off the rim and out.
“This was just a great college basketball game,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said. “I think you just saw two teams who didn’t want to lose and there’s obviously some added intensity when it’s a rivalry game but the Border War truly knows no boundaries or borders.”
In the first overtime, both teams traded baskets throughout with neither team leading by more than two points. And while it looked as though the Rams might have sewn it up with late free throws from Alicia Nichols and Sam Martin, Cowgirl guard Kaylee Hoffman hit her only field goal of the night on a fadeaway baseline jumper with five seconds to play.
Though offense was the story of the first overtime period, it was the foul situation that would decide the game from that point. After already losing second-team All-Mountain West guard AJ Newton to foul trouble in regulation, Nystrom fouled out just 1:03 into the first overtime period and Sixth Player of the year Caitlin Duffy headed to the bench for good with 1:57 to go in the first extra session. But there was still plenty of basketball to be played.
Unlike the first overtime, it seemed as though the Rams were firmly in control when freshman Elin Gustavsson completed a huge three-point play to put CSU up 80-75 with 2:14 to play.
Not so fast.
The Cowgirls again battled back despite losing star guard Kayla Woodward too, after fouling out with just nine seconds to play in the second overtime. Cowgirl guard Chelan Landry drove the length of floor before finding forward Kaylie Rader for an easy layup with just two seconds to play. Third overtime here we come.
Heading into the third overtime, fans began seeing players who hadn’t left the end of the bench all season entering the game in its most tenuous moments.
I can’t tell you what I was thinking (going into the third overtime),” Williams joked after the game. “Those are situations you can’t really practice throughout the year. We had personnel out there that I’m thinking, ‘She doesn’t even know where to go on that play.’”
Like the first overtime, both teams traded baskets early on before a free throw from Ryder with 1:59 to play gave the Rams a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. But this one was far from over.
Following a rainbow 3-pointer that cut the CSU lead back to 1, Mestdagh, the younger sister of former Ram standout Kim Mestdagh, went to the line for the first two free throws of her career.
First free throw: Nothing but net.
Second free throw: Buckets.
And finally after nearly three hours, the Rams sealed their spot in the finals when Landry’s desperation three-pointer clanked of the back of the rim.
Despite losing four of its best players to fouls, senior forward Sam Martin always had faith that her team would find a way to win.
“Hayley (Thompson) came in and got some huge rebounds and made huge defensive plays,” Martin said. “Then Hanne came in with the first two free throws of her career and nailed them. I think this just shows what we always talk about, we’re playing for each other, we’re playing for this school and we’ll all do whatever it takes to win for this team.”
For a team who has defied expectations all year, a win in Saturday’s conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament would be the coronation of a dream season come true. When asked about whether she worried about fatigue for her team tomorrow, Martin answered with a simple, yet definite response.
“No, we’ll all take an ice bath tonight, but in the morning we’ll be ready to go,” Martin said. “It’s the championship game – we’ll be there.”
Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.