Red-hot CSU looks toward homestretch of conference, beyond

Mike Roley

There’s still unfinished business left on the table for the CSU Women’s basketball team.

CSU (19-1, 9-0 MW) is off to one of the best 20-game starts in school history and is currently riding a 16-game winning streak. The Rams have ran through the first half of conference play undefeated and play some of the stingiest defense in the country. But after a loss in the Mountain West title game two years ago and an upset loss to San Jose State in the first round of the conference tournament a year ago, there is still work to be done to get to where they want at season’s end.

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“We definitely want to get back there this year,” senior guard Jamie Patrick said. “We just really want to end with a better season than we have the past few years.”

Going forward into the homestretch of conference play and ultimately the conference tournament, one of the biggest assets of this year’s squad is the maturity and experience they’ve brought to late game situations. The experience of players like Patrick, Keyora Wharry, Ellen Nystrom, Emile Hesseldal and Elin Gustavsson have benefited the Rams and aided them in finishing out tight ballgames. CSU has won a number of close games, including a huge six point win over BYU early in the season, a double overtime triumph over Navy, and a one-point thriller at the buzzer over in-state rival CU. CSU has also won four of their nine conference games by less than ten points, including a 68-64 win over Boise State, last year’s MW tournament champion on Jan. 2.

“We’ve been in some close games and easily could have lost a couple of those games,” head coach Ryun Williams said. “I think the things that have showed is the overall experience that we have on the court in those big games.”

With the experience in hand, both from a season ago and in close games this season, Williams expects consistency in how the Rams continue to play.

“I expect a lot of the same thing,” Williams said. “I expect a different energy level as we get closer to March.”

The Rams cornerstone so far this season has been their ability to defend. CSU is allowing just under 52 points per game this season, which ranks ninth in the country and opponents are shooting a dismal 34 percent from the field against them, a figure that is third in the nation. CSU has only given up more than 60 points on four occasions this season, and has held their opponent to less than 50 in eleven of their 20 contests.

“We pride ourselves on our defense,” Patrick said. “It helps us carry over to our offense.”

Offensively, CSU has been very balanced in terms of scoring. The Rams have three players averaging double figures in scoring with Patrick leading the way at 12 per game and Wharry and Nystrom both averaging 10 a night. Gustavsson is right behind at just under 10 a game and Alana Arias is contributing eight per game off the bench. This type of balance has allowed CSU to attack opposing defenses with a number of different weapons.

“It’s awesome because teams try to prepare for us and they think they’re going to do it this way and we end up coming back at them from a different direction,” Patrick said. “Especially in the Wyoming game they face-guarded me and Ellen and Keyora both had 17 points. We just come from all directions and that’s where we’re strong. Our bench comes off really strong too and we’re using that to our advantage.”

The final nine games of conference play will present a challenge, second place Fresno State (12-8, 8-1 MW) will be at Moby on Mar. 1. CSU will also face many of the same teams it has already beaten this season.

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“It’s always way harder to beat a team two or three times in-a-row,” Hesseldal said. “We have a target on our back.”

An undefeated run in conference play is within reach for the Rams, as is an opportunity to avenge the last two years and capture the Mountain West tournament crown. A berth in the NCAA tournament may be on the horizon as well, however the Rams are focusing on what is directly in front of them, and continuing to improve.

“Our kids want to go to the tournament,” Williams said. “They have lofty goals and those are realistic goals for this group. The biggest thing that we try to keep them locked in on is ‘Just win today, get better today’ and that stuff will take care of itself. This group has really done a nice job of that over the last two or three years. They understand the importance of preparing each day. And we keep getting better then we’ll be a tough team come the latter part of the season.”

Although the NCAA tournament is over a month away, and there’s still lots of basketball to be played, a berth in the big dance would be superb.

“It’d be like a dream come true,” Patrick said.” As a little kid you dream of making it to March Madness. As a team it would be really awesome for all of us.”

 Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached  at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @michael_roley