At least a share of the Mountain West women’s basketball conference title will go to Colorado State after the Rams took down Nevada 68-61 Tuesday night in front of a crowd of 1,155 at Moby Arena.
This is the second straight year the MW title has gone to CSU, as it won the league outright last season with a 25-8 overall record to go with a 15-3 mark in the conference.
“It means that we’re a consistent program,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said of winning the MW title twice in a row. “It’s hard to win a conference championship. It’s hard to win one. To win two, that’s special.”
A CSU win on Friday against Utah State in the season’s final regular season game will give the Rams an outright hold of the regular season championship. Even if the Rams lose, they can still clinch the title as sole champions if New Mexico loses to Wyoming.
The Wolf Pack didn’t let the Rams have their piece of the MW easily though, as they just wouldn’t go away in the second half.
“It’s tough when we have something to lose, and we’re trying every game to fight for it and every team is giving us their best game,” junior guard Jamie Patrick said.
Nevada trailed by double-digits at halftime, 37-27, but came out of the locker room strong with an 8-0 run right away to cut the deficit to just two. Nevada’s 6-foot-8 center Mimi Mengudi led the charge for the Wolf Pack in the second frame as an extremely difficult low post presence to deal with. Mengudi started Nevada’s run with an easy layup right over the top of CSU defenders, which was followed by two 3-pointers. She finished with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds.
CSU fought to find some separation as guards Jamie Patrick and Ellen Nystrom answered UNR’s run with back-to-back threes, but simply failed to put it away until the final minutes. It was as close and hard-fought a game as these teams’ last matchup in Reno earlier this season, that the Rams won 59-58, only after furiously erasing a 13-point Nevada lead in the final four minutes. Tuesday’s battle featured four ties and seven lead changes.
One of those ties came late, and it looked like the Wolf Pack would have a shot to upset the Rams down the stretch after UNR’s Julia Shelbourn hit two consecutive buckets from the short corner to even the score at 52 with 4:15 to play.
But the Rams responded exactly how they needed to, rattling off a 10-2 run to push the score to 62-54 with under two minutes to play. The Wolf Pack fought on with a final 6-2 run, to cut the score back down to five, 66-61, with 29 seconds remaining, but it was too little, too late as Elin Gustavsson sealed it at the free throw line with two nets.
“We responded really well when they tied it up,” Williams said. “That’s what championship teams do, they find a way to make plays when plays need to be made. The kids did a good job down the stretch.”
Having to find different ways to win has been a theme for this CSU team all season long as it has had to endure injuries to several key players, such as senior point guard A.J. Newton and juniors Victoria Wells and Emilie Hesseldal, who sat out Tuesday. Tuesday’s result fell into that theme as well, as Newton, who led CSU in scoring coming into the Nevada bout, went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting. Additionally, Nevada killed the Rams on the boards, grabbing 49 rebounds, including 18 offensive, to CSU’s 23.
Jamie Patrick filled Newton’s void with a game-high 19 points, nearly triple her season average.
“That’s what our team is about, you can’t just take away one player because someone else is going to step up,” Nystrom said.
The Rams will likely still need to win the MW Tournament to earn a bid to NCAA Tournament later this month, though. Still, Williams said a MW regular season championship is nothing to scoff at, and his team should celebrate its arrival at a goal.
“Absolutely we’re going to enjoy it,” Williams said. “I don’t get the whole talk where ‘it’s just a conference championship, it doesn’t get you into the NCAA.’ Who doesn’t want to win a conference championship? These kids want it bad, it’s hard to do and it gives you something to celebrate. So we’re going to do that and come ready to go on Friday night.”
The Rams tip off with Utah State at 7 p.m. Friday at Moby Arena. A.J. Newton and Gritt Ryder will be honored as seniors in their last home game with the Rams as they try to place an outright grasp of the MW title.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.