A chance to clinch a share of the Mountain West title presents itself for Colorado State’s women’s basketball team Tuesday night when the Nevada Wolf Pack tips off against the Rams in Moby Arena at 7 p.m.
Two games remain for CSU (21-6, 13-3 MW) in the regular season — the final being Friday’s home match-up against Utah State. CSU currently holds a half-game lead for first in the MW over New Mexico (17-11, 13-4 MW), which has only one game yet to play — Friday at Wyoming. As a result, the Rams have full control of their final standing. If CSU wins both this week, the Rams have an outright hold of the MW Championship for the second straight season and a top seed in the MW Tournament in Las Vegas next week.
A loss on either night, though, means the Rams need Wyoming to beat New Mexico Friday to stay the sole champions. The Rams dropping both means they can only hope for a share of the conference, which would be out of reach if the Lobos defeat the Cowgirls.
Though the MW is a league where any team can beat any other, CSU should realistically have little trouble clinching an outright hold of the regular season title as Nevada (8-19, 4-12 MW) and Utah State (8-20, 5-11 MW) sit in the bottom tier of the MW at 10th and 9th, respectively.
While the Rams only narrowly beat the Wolfpack 59-58 in Reno earlier this season, that was a different CSU team than head coach Ryun Williams can put on the floor today. Senior guard AJ Newton was playing just her third game back from major knee injury, defensive specialist Victoria Wells was out with a concussion and Gritt Ryder played through flu-like symptoms and a tweaked hamstring when the Rams played in Reno.
CSU has been rolling lately, as it will be seeking its fifth straight victory Tuesday night. Here are three keys for a win over the Wolf Pack:
Focus and put it away early
In Reno, a lackluster CSU performance on both ends of floor allowed the Wolf Pack to hang around the whole game, and the eventual building of a scary 13-point lead the Rams barely overcame after finally deciding to execute. Offensively, the Rams missed bunnies that left double-figures off their final score, and were out-hustled defensively, losing the rebounding margin by five in the second half. This time around, with the conference championship on the line, CSU needs to be focused out of the gate and be the better team right away.
Standing at 6-foot-8, Nevada center Mimi Mengudi out of Libreville, Gabon, can create some obvious match-up problems for many women’s basketball teams. But for all she has in size, Mengudi lacks in speed. The center often picks up fouls due to not getting to the spot in time, as she did against the Rams in Reno for two quick whistles that sent her bench for most of the first half. Mengudi can struggle to guard quicker post players with solid mid-range games, such as CSU’s Elin Gustavsson, that force her to guard out of the paint away from the basket. Gustavsson went around Mengudi on the dribble with ease last time and ended with a game-high 17 points. The Rams should go right at her again and see if she picks up fouls or again fails to stay in front of Gustavsson’s quick moves. CSU has to be wary of Mengudi, though, as the center is effective when she is in the game. She leads the Wolf Pack with 12.9 points per contest to go along with 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
Stay tight defensively to exploit poor ball handling
Nevada averages 19.2 turnovers per game. There should be no exception for that stat against CSU, as the Rams can turn up defensive pressure as well as almost any team in the Mountain West. Mengudi can score, but she requires guards to pass her the ball in the post. Those guards have to deal with the likes of scrappy perimeter defenders such as Victoria Wells and Hanne Mestdagh. If the Rams force turnovers, there will be opportunities for easy baskets off fastbreaks that can help build that crucial early lead.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.