LARAMIE — Clara Tapia’s potential game-winning shot Saturday against Washington State in the second round of the WNIT came up short. It would be hard to say the same, however, of the Cowgirls’ 2016-17 season in total.
The 68-67 overtime loss to the Cougars ended Wyoming’s season at 22-10 overall. After being predicted to finish eighth in the Mountain West, the Cowgirls went 13-5 in conference play to earn the No. 2 seed in the Mountain West tournament. Despite losing leading scorer and rebounder Liv Roberts to a knee injury on Feb. 15, Wyoming set a program record for most conference wins, won more games than it had since 2012-13 and won its first postseason invitational game since 2011.
“As I told this team from Day One, you’re going to be measured if you can reach your potential, not by what it says on a scoreboard,” head coach Joe Legerski, who was named the conference’s coach of the year, said Saturday. “The scoreboard says today we came up a point short. This team didn’t come up short at all throughout this season.
“When you start out being picked eighth, you finish runner up in the Mountain West Conference, an improved Mountain West Conference that made a big jump as a conference, come up with 22 wins, find a way to win in the postseason and go into overtime with a Pac-12, we by far reached our potential and exceeded it.”
The Cowgirls’ 22 wins this season rank seventh in program history. It was the 10th Wyoming women’s team to win 20 games.
Wyoming fell in its first and only Mountain West tournament game to No. 7 seed Fresno State but won its first-round WNIT game against Seattle.
“Getting postseason play experience, especially being we’re a young team, that’s just going to help us going into next season,” sophomore Bailee Cotton said. “And I think it kind of lit a fire under us. We want to get back to the NCAA, to the NIT, whichever. And just get more wins. Because we can see we could do it, and we can compete with these Pac-12 teams.”
Legerski noted in that conference tournament loss that the team felt the loss of Roberts’ presence as a leader. Saturday, there was no doubt Wyoming could have used the junior’s ability to play in the paint, as the Cougars controlled Wyoming 16-4 on the offensive glass. But nonetheless, the Cowgirls were able to overcome a nine-point deficit to force overtime. And even with Cotton, a starting forward, out of the game with five fouls, Wyoming would have advanced had Tapia’s shot fallen. The same could be said of Marta Gomez’s 3-point attempt at the end of regulation.
“It was a battle down to the last second, and just a reflection of our whole season was that and how hard we work,” junior Natalie Baker said. “I’m really proud of this team, and we’re all super proud of each other.”
The WNIT was the first postseason invitational tournament that any current Cowgirl had played on. That inexperience may have come into play as Wyoming tried to close out the Cougars.
For instance, Wyoming’s only points in overtime came off a 3-pointer made by freshman Taylor Rusk, who wasn’t deterred by not sinking an open 3 earlier in the period.
“That’s something we can build upon,” Legerski said.
The upside to that inexperience is that Cowgirls will lose just one senior, Hailey Ligocki, after next season.
“I tell you what, this team’s young,” Legerski said. “And the excitement that we have for this program I think built with this team. We needed a group to just ignite that again. We’ve hovered around .500 for the last couple seasons, and now all of a sudden we’re back into postseason play. Like I said, we’ve had our highest finish, of being second, in a few years. I think you see the excitement, and this is something we can build upon. We have to add to this group. There’s no doubt.”