CSU women’s hoops team already has sights set on tournament run

Sam Lounsberry

Preparation is what the early season is all about, especially for the Colorado State women’s basketball team. 

An NCAA Tournament berth is the clear next step for the Rams after winning two straight Mountain West regular-season championships.
 
But they have plenty of time to reach their peak.
 
Lately, reaching the NCAA Tournament out of the Mountain West has worked differently on the women’s side from the men’s. Last year, the MW sent three men’s teams to the Big Dance, but only Boise State represented the women — the team that won the MW Tournament to snag an automatic bid.
 
Even with the MW regular-season title the last two seasons, the CSU women never made the NCAA Tournament, as the MW Tournament crown and the bid that comes with it eluded them. The last time the conference sent more than one women’s team dancing was the 2009-2010 season, and it will likely be a one-bid league again this year, according to CSU coach Ryun Williams.
 
“At the end of the day, is the league good enough to be a two-bid league yet? Probably not,” Williams said Monday after practice. “We’re not.”
 
That affords Williams and the Rams the time to focus fully on improvement in the non-conference season, which officially starts Friday at 7 p.m. against Div. II opponent Western State in Moby Arena. They don’t have to worry about a loss in non-conference play hurting their RPI and chances at snagging an at-large bid if they don’t end up winning the conference tournament.
 
Rather, the Rams know exactly what they have to do to reach their post-season goal.
 
“I don’t think it’s any secret, we have to win the (Mountain West) Tournament to get to the Dance,” Williams continued. “So we want to be really good then. It’s not important to be rock stars right now — we won’t be.”
 
But CSU will likely look fine Friday against the Mountaineers. Western State posted a 4-22 record last season, and was picked to finish last in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference pre-season coaches’ poll this year.
 
Of course, for a team with NCAA Tourney aspirations, every opportunity to improve must be taken, which Rams’ standout Ellen Nystrom knows.
 
“We have to play good to win, even when it’s a Div. II team,” Nystrom said. “We just want to strive. Even if we’re up by 30, we still have to play our best just to keep getting better.”
 
Competition picks up quickly for CSU, though. Incarnate Word comes to Moby Arena on Tuesday following the Western State opener, and then the Rams host BYU in a big rematch.
 
The Cougars beat CSU 69-58 in Salt Lake City last year, led by Lexi Eaton-Rydalch’s 30-point explosion against the Rams. Additionally, CSU forward Emilie Hesseldal injured her elbow in the contest, missing several games thereafter.
 
Nystrom can hardly help looking forward to another shot at senior Eaton-Rydalch and the Cougars, who have been to two straight NCAA Tournaments, losing to eventual champion Connecticut in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
 
“Of course I’m excited about that game, but right now we just have to take one game at a time,” Nystrom said. “But yeah, I want to beat BYU so bad, especially on our home court. That’s going to super exciting, and we’re all going to be pumped.”
 
The Cougars come to Moby next Saturday, Nov. 21, for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
 
The Rams hit the road to play Penn in Philadelphia Nov. 24, and then travel to the Navy Classic in Annapolis over Thanksgiving to play Morgan State in the opening round.
 
In-state rival CU comes to Moby Dec. 2, and then the Rams finish off non-conference play in four more games: at Northern Colorado Dec. 8, at home vs. Montana Dec. 10 and Oklahoma Panhandle State Dec. 13 and back on the road at Denver Dec. 20. MW play starts Jan. 2 in Fort Collins vs. Boise State.
 
But it’s the early games against teams like Western State that will help Williams shape his lineup.
 
“We’ve got a lot to figure out,” Williams said. “We’ve got some new faces.”
 
Among CSU’s newcomers is forward Amanda Kantzy, a freshman out of Vallingby, Sweden.
 
In an exhibition with South Carolina-Aiken Friday, Williams emptied his bench, playing every player except Alana Arias, who was out due to illness. But Kantzy was first off the bench for the Rams and ended up their leading scorer with 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
 
“I’ve always heard from my coach I’m a good shooter, but then I just love to work hard,” Kantzy said. “I think that’s my biggest strength, is that I come onto the court and play with energy.”
 
Nystrom foresees her fellow Swede contributing in her debut NCAA season with the Rams.
 
“She’s going to be great for our team this year,” Nystrom said. “She has great body language, she works hard, she talks, she’s a great shooter, so she’s got a little bit of everything.”
 
Expect Williams to have an idea of where Kantzy and fellow newcomers Hannah Tvrdy, Callie Kaiser, Taylor Ely, Myanne Hamm and Kincso Keleman fit into the rotation before BYU rolls into town.
 
“We have some things to work with,” Williams said.
 
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @samlounz.