LAS VEGAS — The Wyoming women’s basketball team’s stingy defense didn’t exactly fit that bill Tuesday night.
At least not until it absolutely had to.
San Diego State’s quickness on the perimeter and size on the interior pushed the Cowgirls to overtime in a back-and-forth Mountain West tournament semifinal matchup, but Wyoming clamped down in the extra time and eventually pulled away for a 75-70 win inside the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It was a game tonight where neither team was going to give an inch,” Wyoming coach Joe Legerski said.
The win advanced the Cowgirls to their first-ever MW tournament championship game, where they’ll take on top-seeded Boise State on Wednesday. Wyoming and Boise State split their regular-season games with the Cowgirls handing the Broncos one of their two league losses back on Jan. 26 in Laramie, setting up a rubber match with major postseason implications.
Wyoming won’t make it to the NCAA Tournament unless it cuts down the nets in Las Vegas to earn the league’s automatic bid. In order to do that, the Cowgirls will have to knock off the two-time defending conference tournament champion that’s won 12 of its last 13 games following its 89-77 win over Fresno State in the first semifinal.
The Cowgirls needed all 45 minutes against No. 7 seed SDSU in order to get the chance.
SDSU, just the fourth team all season to hit the 70-point mark against the MW’s top scoring defense, went on a 7-0 run over the final 2 minutes, 17 seconds of regulation to take a 58-56 lead before Wyoming freshman Karla Erjavec was fouled and knocked down two free throws with 5.7 ticks left to force overtime.
“The emotions were overwhelming for sure, but I tried to calm myself down and just knock those two down,” Erjavec said. “I knew my team needed those, and I’m glad I delivered.”
That’s when Erjavec and Marta Gomez took over, combining for all 17 of the Cowgirls’ points in the extra period.
Wyoming took the lead for good when Gomez sank a pair of free throws with 1:47 left in overtime. Taylor Rusk got a steal on SDSU’s next possession, and Erjavec padded the Cowgirls’ lead with a runner. SDSU shot 50 percent from the field for the game but went scoreless for a 1:43 stretch as Wyoming went on an 8-0 run to build a decisive 71-64 lead with 22 seconds left.
Gomez made all 10 of her free throws and finished with a game-high 25 points while Erjavec had 16. The duo combined to go 10-for-10 from the free-throw line in the final 2 minutes.
“I was like, ‘We’re getting this,’” Gomez said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take and I don’t really care, but we’re going to get this because our team deserves to play in the championship game tomorrow.”
Said Legerski, “I thought in overtime, this senior wasn’t going to be denied. She just kept making big shot after big shot.”
Bailee Cotton added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Cowgirls, who extended their defense on SDSU’s 3-point shooters but had a difficult time keeping SDSU out of the lane as a result. The Aztecs, who got 16 points from Sophia Ramos and 14 apiece from Murray and Mallory Adams, scored 46 of their paints in the paint, but Wyoming countered by knocking down eight 3s and and scoring 19 points off 13 SDSU turnovers.
“When you take a look at this game, we made five more 3s than San Diego State. That’s five extra points. That’s the difference in the ball game,” Legerski said. “That’s by design, but it makes it difficult when they’re scoring layups and you’re sitting there wondering if you’re going to be able to stop them at some point in time.”
Erjavec had 10 of her points in the first two quarters, but the Cowgirls connected on just three of their last 12 first-half shots, missing six straight at one point. Gomez banged in a 3 to put Wyoming back in front late in the second quarter, but Adams’ driving layup in the waning seconds sent the teams to the break tied at 32.
The lead changed hands 15 times before the clutch free-throw shooting and timely defense finally ensured Wyoming of a shot at more history.
“We’ve never been in a championship game,” Gomez said. “It’s kind of crazy to represent Wyoming in the championship game. I think it’s just one more game. Forty minutes. Nothing’s going to change. We just need to come play our game, and whatever happens happens.”