LARAMIE — It all may have gotten to Wyoming’s women’s basketball team. That’s head coach Joe Legerski’s opinion anyway.
Being in contention for a Mountain West regular-season championship isn’t exactly a new experience for the Cowgirls, who were within striking distance at this time last season before dropping their final two regular-season games to finish third in the league standings. But last year’s team wasn’t as consistent as this year’s has been down the stretch.
Which is why the Cowgirls’ 66-64 home loss to Fresno State on Wednesday came as somewhat of a surprise. Yes, the Bulldogs were right behind Wyoming in the MW standings, but the Cowgirls had won nine straight, including a win over Fresno in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 30 and one over league leader Boise State, to put themselves just a game back of the Broncos in the MW standings heading into Wednesday.
Wyoming (18-6, 11-4 MW) has had just three double-digit win streaks in program history and hadn’t had that long of one since winning 12 straight during the 2007-08 season. The Cowgirls will have to wait to take aim at that feat again after a night when Legerski felt his team did more thinking than playing.
“Maybe the younger players, but when I take a look at it, some of our seniors also,” Legerski said when asked if he thought the magnitude of the moment affected his team mentally. “It’s a learning experience for everyone. That’s the biggest thing that I take from this. Do you grow from this whether you’re a senior or a freshman?”
Legerski made sure to credit Fresno’s offensive execution, but Wyoming, which is giving up the fewest points in the MW, allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 57 percent from the field in yielding more than 60 points for the first time since their previous loss — a 78-75 setback to New Mexico on Jan. 19. The Cowgirls are the nation’s second-best 3-point shooting team (40.5 percent) yet shot just 28 percent (6 of 21) against Fresno. And Wyoming, which averages right at 11 turnovers per game, coughed it up 16 times, including three consecutive possessions late that turned a two-point lead into a four-point deficit in the final 54 seconds.
Now Wyoming’s regular-season league title hopes are a longshot at best. Boise State’s overtime win Wednesday over Colorado State coupled with the Cowgirls’ loss gave the Broncos a two-game cushion with just three to play before the MW tournament.
Yet Legerski and his players don’t necessarily see it all as a negative heading into Saturday’s game at Air Force (8-18, 4-11).
“I think sometimes the pressure builds. It’s a situation where all of a sudden it’s five, six, seven (straight wins) and you’re starting to do something that maybe you’ve never done before,” he said. “Players may tell you they don’t worry about that, but then you hear them talk about it. I wish we were still talking about getting another one, but maybe some of the pressure’s been relieved off this team.”
Wyoming has already done enough to guarantee itself a top-4 seed in the league tournament, which begins March 10. That gives the Cowgirls a bye into the quarterfinals — an important development considering their only shot at making the NCAA Tournament is to get the MW’s automatic bid by cutting down the nets in Las Vegas.
That’s the reality for every team each season in the MW, which is almost always a one-bid league. Wyoming’s objective is to get back to the best version of itself before then.
“We were probably thinking we had a chance to be on top (of the MW standings),” senior forward Marta Gomez said. “Maybe now we know it’s going to be even harder than what it was before, so we don’t have anything to lose. We finish the season as strong as we can, and then we go into the tournament and we do the best we can.”