LAS VEGAS — A 27-game win streak. A 30-1 record. An undefeated run through all of conference play.
Yet, the season doesn’t really start until Friday for the Rams. At least, that is how Colorado State starting forward Emilie Hesseldal was feeling the day before the Mountain West women’s tournament finals matchup with Fresno State.
Hesseldal and others from the 2013-2014 season remember losing in the finals to the Bulldogs, and then being upset in the quarterfinals the next season by San Jose State.
A third straight regular season championship was worth celebrating for the Rams this year, but winning the MW Tournament and securing an automatic NCAA bid has been the real goal all along. To do so, the No. 1 seeded Rams will have to get past the No. 2 seeded Bulldogs again.
“I wouldn’t want to play any other team than Fresno,” Hesseldal said. “We have a lot of tension, these two teams, so it will be a fun game. I think we have some revenge from two years ago.”
No. 22 CSU beat Fresno State 68-55 to secure an outright regular season title. But the win did not come as handily as most of the Rams’ other wins in Moby Arena this season.
The two top teams in the MW battled down to the wire that night, before the Bulldogs made the deadly mistake of letting 3-point sniper Jamie Patrick get open in the corner multiple times late in the fourth quarter.
“We got after it and they got after it,” Hesseldal said. “I think it just came down to who was smarter and who made smarter plays down the stretch.”
Prior to that, CSU had struggled to score against the interior defense of Toni Smith and the nation’s leading shot blocker Bego Faz Davalos.
“Their inside presence really hurt us,” CSU head coach Ryun Williams said of the previous meeting.
When asked what stood out about that game, Williams, Hesseldal and forward Elin Gustavsson all used the same word to describe it: physical.
“It was the most physical we’ve played all season,” Hesseldal said. “So I expect the same, if not even more.”
In the first outing, Fresno guard Shauqunna Collins was able to penetrate at will, leading to open shots on the perimeter for Brittany Aikens and others.
Collins finished with just six points but used her speed and handles to create drive-and-kick looks for her teammates. Moriah Faulk and Alex Furr, who shot a combined 35 percent from 3-point range on the season, were not able to capitalize in Moby though, shooting a combined 3-for-13 from downtown that day.
On a neutral court, the Rams should expect more of those shots to fall, so one of the keys to victory is to not letting those shots become available in the first place. That will begin with containing Collins off of the dribble by forcing her to the left and not playing too far out.
“It’s kind of like Keyora (Wharry),” Hesseldal said. “You want to be out there guarding her, but you don’t want to be too far out. … She’s a quick guard. You can’t stand around the basket waiting for her because she’s going to get her layups and she’s capable of those little jump shots within the perimeter.”
After playing back-to-back days in the quarterfinals and semifinals, both teams got a day off before the championship game. The rest is well deserved, but CSU head coach Ryun Williams said he would not have minded getting right back into the action Thursday.
“It’s important that we keep a little edge,” Williams said. “You don’t want to shut it down then have to turn it back on. I would love to be playing today, really. But, we don’t. So, we let them sleep this morning, had a nice practice where we got some shots up. Really concentrated type of practice.”
To stay in tune with the atmosphere, the team will be in the stands to watch a bit of the CSU men’s team’s quarterfinal matchup with Boise State Thursday evening.
“We’ll give them a little downtime, have a nice film session this afternoon, and we will probably bring them to a half of the men’s game, just so they can keep in this competitive fever. You know, the tournament fever, you don’t want it to leave.”
The women’s championship game tips off Friday at 1 p.m. MT in the Thomas and Mack Center.