Video by Sam Lounsberry
For the second straight year, Colorado State’s women’s basketball team is the outright Mountain West Champions of the regular season.
The Rams clinched the title Friday night with a 76-58 win over Utah State as senior guards AJ Newton and Gritt Ryder were honored in their last game in Moby Arena for Senior Night.
“These kids wanted to send Gritt and AJ out with a victory, they were going to do whatever they possibly could to do that,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said. “They’re great, great basketball players, but they’re even better teammates. I love those two,” Williams said of his seniors.
Utah State certainly tried its hardest to spoil the moment for the Rams, though, as it was a battle nearly the whole way. The first half was extremely back and forth, featuring 11 ties and 12 lead changes.
CSU got off to a strong start, getting to the rim on three straight possessions courtesy of drives by Ellen Nystrom and Elin Gustavsson and a backdoor cut by AJ Newton for a layup. But USU’s standout guard and likely Mountain West Freshman of the Year selection Funda Nakkasoglu kept the Aggies in it with back to back 3-pointers to tie the game at six.
Nakkasoglu used her hot start as the initiation of a shooting clinic the rest of the first half to keep the Aggies close with CSU. The freshman drilled four shots from behind the arc on her way to 18 first half points.
Ryun Williams switched his team out of a 2-3 zone defense to man-to-man to try to cool the hot hands of the Aggies from outside. Both teams ended the first shooting above 50 percent, with the Aggies shooting 52 percent and the Rams hitting 50 percent. CSU took a 39-38 lead into the locker room. Newton led the way for the Rams in the first, scoring 15 behind three treys and 5-of-8 shooting from the floor.
It was the Gritt Ryder show to start the second, as she made it to the line for a free throw before driving and dishing to Elin Gustavsson for a layup and then scoring a layup of her own. Two Ryder free throws to follow capped off a 7-0 CSU run to start the second that gave the Rams a 46-38 lead as they held USU scoreless the half’s first five minutes.
But Nakkasoglu hit another 3-pointer to finally get the Aggies on the board in the second. Gustavsson answered with a layup, but a 6-0 Aggies run ensued that cut the Rams’ lead back down to just one, 48-47.
Hanne Mestdagh then hit a what would be a pivotal 3-pointer deep in the shot clock to put CSU back up by four, 51-47, with 11 minutes to play. Moby got pumped, and CSU outscored Utah State 25-11 the rest of the way.
“That was big, (Hanne) has made big shots all year,” Williams said of the guard’s crucial net.
Jamie Patrick’s second-half defensive effort on Nakkasoglu shut her totally down. The freshman went scoreless after her 18-point first half and sole trey to start the second, finishing with 21 points.
Williams told Patrick to stick to Nakkasoglu after she hit her final three-ball early in the second frame.
“Right when (Williams) said that, I knew what my role was, and I knew that if my threes weren’t falling that I had to make it up on the defensive end,” Patrick stated.
Williams said he chose Patrick to defend the standout guard because of her bothersome length.
“Jamie is long, if she can keep the ball in front of her she’s tough to finish over,” Williams said.
Offensively, CSU relied on an incredibly efficient game from Gustavsson, who finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting to along with five rebounds. The Aggies had no answer for neither the Swede’s strong post moves with her back to her basket nor her quickness off the dribble from mid-range. Newton and Ryder added 17 and 15, respectively, in their farewell to Moby Arena.
After the Rams had extended their lead to a safe distance, Ryder and Newton exited the game with two minutes left to a standing ovation from their home fans and big hugs from Williams on the sideline.
With the victory and Mountain West Championship, CSU has the number one seed for the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas next week. The Rams could face the Aggies their next game as they play the winner of Utah State and San Jose State on Tuesday at 1 p.m. MT. A regular season MW title will almost certainly fail to buy the Rams an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, though, so they will have to come out on top in Vegas to get an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
But the Rams still have plenty of reason to rejoice, according to Williams, despite not necessarily being a tournament team yet.
“These kids deserve to celebrate,” Williams said. “It’s a very difficult 18 game grind, and we’ve been the most consistent team the last two years, so yeah it’s time to celebrate that. We’ll be ready to go when we tipoff in Vegas.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.