After overcoming a first half in which they shot just 31 percent from the field, the Rams fought, scratched, and clawed their way to a 72-67 win over eighth-seeded Utah State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference women’s basketball tournament on Tuesday. In a game that featured 11 tie scores and 12 lead changes, it was a decisive and one-scoring play by freshman forward Elin Gustavsson with 11.8 seconds to play that gave CSU their final — and most important — lead of the game. Following an air ball by Aggie sharpshooter Makenlee Williams on the other end, fellow freshman Ellen Nystrom sealed the Rams’ first win in the Mountain West Conference tournament in four years with two free throws to account for the final 5-point margin.
But for a team that lost two of its last four games after winning 10 straight, it seemed as though the expectations of winning a Mountain West tournament championship and receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade might have weighed a little too much on the Rams in the first half.
After opening with a deep there from guard AJ Newton just 18 seconds into the game, the Rams struggled from the field for the rest of the half, hitting just seven of their next 25 shots.
And while the Aggies weren’t much better as team in the first frame, hitting just 12-of-33 shot attempts from the field, they gave the Rams a heavy dose of senior guard Jennifer Schlott, this year’s Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. Schlott, the conference’s leading scorer at more than 26 points per game, did most of her damage in the first half with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
“She’s really, really, really good,” CSU guard Gritt Ryder said after the game. “It really takes a collective effort to keep her from scoring. A player like that, you just can’t hold her down and I’ve got a lot of respect for how she played tonight.”
For a team that is only 7-5 when trailing at the half compared to 16-1 when leading, there was a surprising aura of confidence coming from the Colorado State locker room at halftime despite trailing 33-31, according to head coach Ryun Williams.
“Our mood was fine, very matter of fact,” Williams said. “That’s not the first time we’ve been down (at the half). The strength of this team is this group’s composure. That’s exactly what our message was. You have to just take it possession by possession and go out and execute the way we’re capable of executing.”
That meant a strong effort from senior forward Sam Martin in the second half, and that is exactly what the Aggies got.
After going scoreless in the first 20 minutes, Martin scored 10 of the Rams’ first 15 points in the second half including eight consecutive to give CSU a 46-42 lead, its largest of the game to that point, with 14:05 to play.
From there, the teams traded blows, including four more lead changes and two tie scores before Gustavsson’s late bucket.
“We just made some errors in the last five minutes,” Utah State head coach Larry Finkbeiner said after the game. “I look back, and where I’m going to lose sleep is the fact that we had multiple 4- and 5-point margins in the last 10 minutes and we couldn’t get a stop. We were always just one rebound, one shot, or one stop away from giving us that advantage we needed to win this one.”
After surviving the Aggies, CSU will return to the court at the Thomas and Mack Center to take on rival Wyoming, who outlasted Boise State 61-56 in the game that immediately followed the Rams’ win. CSU split this season’s rivalry matchup with the Cowboys, losing in Laramie 75-49 before getting revenge last Friday at Moby Arena with a 58-46 win.
Whoever the Rams play, Williams guarantees they’ll be ready.
“Everybody in this tournament is really good, right?” Williams said. “We’ve talked about the parity of this league from day one, but this one surely gets our urgency level where it needs to be early on this tournament. This one sure got us spurred and ready to go.”
Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.