LAS VEGAS — After Wyoming’s shocking come-from-17-points-behind victory late Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament, head coach Joe Legerski commended his seniors for their play during the home stretch of the 69-66 win.
“For Natalie (Baker), Liv (Roberts), they knew they had to compete,” Legerski said. “They knew they wanted to continue to play.”
But the seniors wouldn’t have had a chance to hold off New Mexico if not for the performance of a true sophomore.
Taylor Rusk scored a career-high 21 points and grabbed a career-high eight rebounds in the win. Ten of her points came during Wyoming’s barnstorming 25-point third quarter, during which the Cowgirls erased the Lobos’ 15-point halftime lead.
“I told my staff during one media timeout, that Taylor was the one playing with the composure, and that’s what you expect from your seniors,” Legerski said. “So I thought Taylor really carried us in the third quarter. She really stepped up and played with that confidence that she’s had all year, and had all the starts that she does under her belt.”
Even before that quarter, though, Rusk was keeping Wyoming within striking distance. The Cowgirls only had 10 points in the first quarter, but she had the last six of them.
Rusk went 0-for-3 in the second quarter, but at halftime, she again filled a role typically reserved for an upperclassman.
“We needed to have a little bit of fire,” Roberts said, “and as Taylor said it, we needed to have a little bit of edge. We had talked among each other, the seniors and the juniors, and Taylor joined in. We just talked about how we want to stay here. We don’t want to be on a plane ride home. That sounds terrible right now. And so I think that that’s what we needed.”
One of Wyoming’s most dangerous 3-point threats, Rusk did the majority of her damage Tuesday by driving, especially to her left side.
“I mean, we’re a 3-point shooting team, so I think we were used to that (option),” said Rusk. “And when we knew that wasn’t going to be there, someone had to step up and start driving the basket. I was the first one, but everyone followed after me, and as a team we all stepped up.”
She shot 5-of-7 during the third quarter. In the fourth, she missed her first three shots. But she made her final two, including a key 3-pointer to extend Wyoming’s lead to six with 1:32 to play.
“I mean, once you start attacking, they have to take that away, too,” Rusk said. “So I think it was good to get to the basket in the second half, and ... once they start collapsing, we can do what we do best and hit some 3s.”
Roberts and Baker were no doubt key components to the win. Roberts hit Wyoming’s go-ahead shot late in the third quarter, and Baker hit eight crucial free throws on eight attempts. But the Cowgirls might have been on that plane ride if not for Rusk.
“I hardly ever get her out of the game,” Legerski said. “You take a look tonight, we played her 39 minutes. She’s kind of the glue that holds this group together at times, both offensively and defensively, and she just keeps competing.”
Onto the semis
The Cowgirls faced seventh-seeded Nevada late Wednesday night with a trip to the championship game on the line. The Wolf Pack upset rival UNLV, the No. 2 seed, in double overtime in the game before Wyoming’s on Tuesday.
“I thought it was two emotional wins,” Legerski said. “Nevada had a great one, we had a big one, and it’s about, now, focusing back, coming out to play. I know Nevada, as I said, has been playing very well. We played them in the first two weeks of the season back in January.
“So we’ll be up tonight taking a look at everything. But once again, it’s just going to come down to execution defensively, offensively, and see how much everybody has, to step away from the emotion of tonight and be ready to play again tomorrow. But Nevada’s playing extremely well.”
Wyoming beat the Wolf Pack by six on Jan. 3 in Laramie and by three on Jan. 24 in Reno, thanks to a late 3-pointer by Marta Gomez.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played them,” Rusk said, “but I think we just need to do what we do, play defense and hopefully start the game a little bit better than we did tonight.
“But we got our confidence, and we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”