CSU women’s hoops looking to finish a strong start with Mountain West title

Colorado State forward Ellen Nystrom goes for shot during the Rams' win over San Jose State.
Colorado State forward Ellen Nystrom goes for shot during the Rams’ win over San Jose State.

Currently standing at second in the Mountain West, CSU women’s basketball team has its sights set on a second consecutive Mountain West Championship.

With a 13-4 overall record and a 5-1 mark in conference, the Rams could be well on their way to the MW crown, but will have to overcome current conference leader in 6-0 Fresno State.

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In the preseason, CSU was picked first in the Mountain West, but dropped its conference opener at Boise State on New Year’s Eve.

But that was without senior AJ Newton, who sat out 11 games this season with a broken bone in her knee that had to be surgically removed and nearly kept Newton out the rest of the year.

“We didn’t want to come out and lose the first game of conference like that, but it taught us that we need to come out every game prepared to play,” Newton said. “It doesn’t matter how we did last year, it doesn’t matter if we were picked first in conference, anyone in the Mountain West can take one from you.”

Newton returned this month against Wyoming, though, and has found her game again, restoring some ardor in her teammates coach Ryun Williams said was lacking before. The senior led the Rams with 14 points Saturday against San Jose State.

“It’s made us play faster,” Newton said of her return. “I know Gritt (Ryder) was super excited because we dreamed of a perfect senior season together.”

“For me personally, (Newton’s return) gives me an energy boost by having a partner in crime out there,” Ryder, CSU’s only other senior, confirmed.

Ryder’s load as primary ball handler has been surely been lightened by Newton’s comeback, as well as sophomore Elin Gustavsson’s improved effort since conference play began. Ryder leads the team in scoring on the season with 10.5 points per game to go along with 5.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds, but Gustavsson has emerged as the Rams’ leading scorer during conference play with 12 points per game.

Riding a five-game win streak, CSU is certainly in contention to repeat last year’s regular season Mountain West title run in a similar fashion. The Rams went on a 10-game win streak right around this time last year that carried them to the crown.

But Ryder knows the streak itself will not win her team any games.

“We can’t lose focus with the win streak,” Ryder stated. “Obviously we know it’s there, but if we start focusing on that, that’s when we’ll start to lose games. We’ll just take one game at a time and try to win each game because we’re the better team.”

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The Rams have done just that in each of their last five wins, including two close ones with Wyoming and Nevada, which the Rams stunned their opponents with a huge comeback in the final minutes.

Ryder said those two have been perhaps the most important for CSU so far this season.

“Those games showed us when we play well, we can beat anyone. Even if we are down in a game, we have this feeling that we can always come back,” Ryder said.

The Rams will have to maintain that mentality as their rematch with Boise State follows this Saturday’s matchup at San Diego State, plus the Fresno State showdown following the Boise game.

“I know San Diego State is coming up first and we need to take care of business and beat them, but I am beyond excited to play Boise again and also Fresno,” Ryder said.

The Bulldogs knocked off CSU last year in the Mountain West Tournament.

“Fresno has been good year after year,” Newton said. “We were hoping they would drop off a little bit, but they’re still really talented. We’re excited.”

The Rams tipoff with the Broncos Jan. 28 in Moby Arena at 7 p.m. before heading to Fresno Jan. 31 to play the Bulldogs at 3 p.m.

Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @samlounz.