The Moby Magic simply ran out Thursday night.
Behind 19 points from standout guard Hailey Mandelko, the Southern Utah women’s basketball team rolled to a 71-56 win over Colorado State in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament at Moby Arena. The loss ended a record-setting 25-8 campaign for the Rams that saw them win 17 of 18 games during a two and a half month stretch of the regular season while also posting a 14-1 home record prior to Thursday’s game.
But similar to their loss to Fresno State in last Saturday’s Mountain West Conference tournament championship game, the Rams just ran out of gas.
“I think all that emotion that we had been riding at the end of the year ran out tonight,” Colorado State head coach Ryun Williams said. “We were just an empty unit and that’s unfortunate. Obviously, we didn’t play our best basketball tonight.”
Playing in their first postseason tournament since 2004, expectations were high around the program about how deep of a run this Ram team could make after finishing just a game shy of the NCAA Tournament.
However, the Thunderbirds came to play.
Early on, it looked as though this one would be a dogfight with both teams trading baskets to the tune of five ties and eight lead changes in the first half alone. But a late run capped off by a free throw from Desiree Jackson with 10 seconds to play in the half gave Southern Utah a 30-28 lead heading into the break.
However, that dogfight quickly headed in the wrong direction as the Thunderbirds dominated the glass early and often while stretching their lead to as many as 11 with 11:31 to play.
“We just weren’t playing like ourselves,” senior Sam Martin said. “We missed easy layups, we didn’t get rebounds, we weren’t making our free throws, and all those little things mattered in this one.”
And despite cutting the deficit to as little as four points with 6:27 to play, Colorado State just couldn’t get over the hump in this one. With a chance to cut the deficit to two on the next possession, Colorado State guard Ellen Nystrom stepped in front of Mandelko to take what looked like an obvious charge.
Instead, Nystrom was called for a blocking foul, her fourth, which sent Mandelko to the line for two free throws which extended the lead back to six with 6:10 to play. Colorado State wouldn’t get closer than five points the rest of the way. It was just that kind of night for the home team.
But for a team who had held its own on the glass this year with bigger, more athletic opponents, CSU simply had no answer on the boards. Led by Jackson who had 10 rebounds to go along with 11 points, the Thunderbirds dominated the glass holding a 45-25 advantage over the Rams as well as outscoring them 19-5 in second-chance points.
“They (Southern Utah) were more physical, they were more active, they just kicked us on the glass,” Williams said. “We just weren’t moving the same way we had been, we didn’t respond to their runs, we needed to score the ball early and we had those opportunities but we just didn’t do it.”
Even after two disappointing losses to end one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in program history, players and coaches alike couldn’t help but be proud of a season that included the first conference regular season title in more than a decade after winning just 11 games all of last year. But don’t think for a second that they’re content with where they are right now.
“It’s not to say that what we did isn’t good enough, but we could have done more,” junior guard AJ Newton, one of four returning Colorado State starters next year said. “In my mind we should be in the NCAA Tournament right now. We’ve come a long way this year, but we’re better than what we showed tonight. This shouldn’t be where we stop.”
Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.