LAS VEGAS, Nev. – You could cut the tension with a knife. It was one of those moments in which you could recognize that you weren’t breathing, and remaining still would happen once hell froze over.
Head coach Ryun Williams kept his arms crossed, going up on his tip-toes and back down repetitively. Athletic Director Jack Graham paced up and down the stretch of open space behind the Colorado State bench. All five players on the court had a look in their eyes as if disaster was about to strike.
Truth is, it didn’t look good for any of them…at all.
The top-seeded Rams fell behind late in their game with No. 8 Utah State in the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West tournament with just more than one minute to play. In a game that rode all the way down to the wire and featured 12 lead changes, the possibility of CSU crapping out on its first day in Vegas remained a very realistic option.
“Basketball games like that one are, from my perspective or any student-athlete who participates in them, not fun,” Graham said. “We all felt that stress of ‘oh my god, did we come all this way just to lose in the first round?’ But then, the character of the team showed up.”
It was a familiar place for CSU, which faced a halftime deficit for its fourth time in its last five games. The Rams have developed a come-from-behind style of play as of late, but perhaps it’s merely been training that finally paid off on Tuesday afternoon.
The character Graham was referring to is comprised of the Rams’ ability to still put up a fight, even with their backs against the wall.
With 74 ticks left on the game clock, the Rams began piecing together every small part of their comeback together one by one. CSU’s Ellen Nystom missed her jumper, but Sam Martin was there to make arguably the biggest play of the game. Martin snagged the offensive rebound and was fouled when she went up for the putback.
In a matter of a split second, CSU went from trailing by three points to having a chance to even the heavyweight contest back up. And that opportunity was a moment that Martin had lived for.
“Every time Hayley (Thompson) and I practice, every time we shoot free throws, it’s like ‘this is for the Mountain West.’ I’ve been there before in my head,” Martin said.
With the weight of her team resting on her shoulders, and a possible end to her college basketball career still looming, Martin swished her free throw right into the dead center of the net without having to use the rim or backboard for assistance.
The game was knotted up, but it was clear of what would happen in the following 51 seconds.
After robbing the game’s momentum, the Rams outscored the Aggies 8-2 in the minute of the game which mattered most, awarding them their first postseason victory since 2009.
“The strength of this team is the composure of this team,” Williams said. “That’s exactly what our halftime message was. You have to take it possession by possession. Let’s just go out and execute the way we’re capable of executing.”
One late-game step at a time, CSU accomplished what it traveled to the desert to do – crushing Utah State’s hopes of pulling out a huge upset in the process.
It was too close for comfort, but at the end of the day the Rams are moving on into the semifinals to play another game.
Collegian Sports Editor Quentin Sickafoose can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @QSickafoose.