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Taylor Rusk vs. SJSU

Wyoming's Taylor Rusk dribbles past San Jose State's Myzhanique Ladd during their game earlier this season at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. Rusk scored a career-high 21 points Tuesday to help lead Wyoming to a 69-66 victoy over New Mexico in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament.

LAS VEGAS — The fans at the Thomas and Mack Center, both those in brown and gold and those in cherry and silver, went silent when they saw who was on the floor. Liv Roberts, recently dubbed the Mountain West’s player of the year, had gone down with a thud. She didn’t play in this tournament last season because of a torn ACL, as evidenced by the brace still on her right leg.

“When I went down, it was more like I just felt sick to my stomach and like I wanted to puke,” Roberts said. “Because that’s how I felt after I tore my ACL.”

But it was her left leg that she was holding — her left ankle, more specifically. She needed help off the court and limped to Wyoming’s locker room, but she didn’t stay there long. The senior checked back into the game and shortly thereafter let out an emotional cheer with 29.5 seconds to play in the third quarter. In between, she had fought through a foul for a layup, completing the transformation of a 17-point deficit into a one-point lead.

Wyoming lost that lead, its second of the game, but only briefly before its advantage to as many as six in the fourth quarter. And behind Taylor Rusk’s career-high 21 points, they managed an improbable, impressive, exhilarating 69-66 win over New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals.

Playing in her first postseason game since 2016, Roberts scored a layup on the game’s first possession. But No. 3 Wyoming’s only lead of the half quickly evaporated. No. 6 New Mexico jumped out to 6-2 lead with a pair of 3-pointers. Rusk tied the game at 6-all and ended a 2:36 Wyoming field goal drought, but New Mexico replied with a 7-2 run and ended the first period up 13-10. The Cowgirls, who missed a pair of open layups early on, failed to convert on nine of their last 10 shots in the first quarter.

The second quarter was not any kinder to the Cowgirls, who were outscored 20-8 in the period. New Mexico went on a 13-0 run at one point, extending its lead to 17 before Natalie Baker ended a Wyoming scoring drought of more than 5 minutes to send Wyoming into the half down 33-18.

Wyoming’s seven first-half field goals were its fewest in a first half against a Mountain West team all season. The Cowgirls’ 18 points matched their fewest in any half against a Mountain West team this season (Air Force, first half). New Mexico hit six of its first 13 3-pointers, while Wyoming missed each of its two first-half attempts.

The third quarter, however, was a different story. Wyoming wasted little time making things interesting, scoring the first seven points out of the half to get within single digits. It took four trips there, though, before the Cowgirls could get any closer than eight. When they did, it was on a 14-3 run to take their first lead since 2-0. Once again, Roberts was the lead’s creator. Shortly after returning to the game, her three-point play made it 43-42. Less than 30 seconds later, the a quarter that Wyoming dominated 25-9 came to a close at that score.

The Lobos shot just 1-of-14 in the third quarter (7.1 percent), where they were outscored by Rusk, 10 points to nine. The Cowgirls hit 9-of-13 shots in the third quarter.

Somehow, they one-upped that scoring total in the fourth. New Mexico began the quarter with a N’Dea Flye 3-pointer to put the Lobos ahead by two, but Wyoming answered with a 7-0 run and the game would never be tied again. The Cowgirls got key 3-pointers from Rusk and Marta Gomez and key free throws from Baker and Clara Tapia to keep the Lobos, who inched within a point in the final seconds, at length. The Cowgirls, who scored 26 points in the quarter, ultimately took their six-point lead with a 47-24 span of play.

Baker, who finished the game with 14 points, went eight-of-eight from the free-throw line.

“When I was at the line, I just knew that it was going to be easier to make these two than probably get two stops,” she said.

Bailee Cotton played just 21 minutes thanks to four fouls. Roberts finished the game with 11 points and Gomez scored 13 off the bench, all in the second half.

The Cowgirls had trailed New Mexico 13-5 early in Wyoming’s Feb. 21 win at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the first of three Wyoming wins against the Lobos this season. New Mexico had more total wins than any other Mountain West school this season. Before Tuesday, Wyoming’s largest deficit in a win this season was 14 at San Jose State.

“If you look up and you see you’re down 15 points, that’s a pretty big task against a team as talented as New Mexico and as well as they were playing,” said Wyoming head coach Joe Legerski, who was recently voted the conference’s coach of the year for the second straight season. “What we talked about is just going out, ‘Let’s win the next 5 minutes, then the next 5 minutes.’ I didn’t expect it to happen all in the third quarter.”

The win was Wyoming’s first in the Mountain West tournament since beating Air Force in 2015.

Follow University of Wyoming athletics reporter Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91

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College Sports Reporter

Brandon Foster reports on University of Wyoming athletics. He joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and covering Mizzou athletics for two years. A St. Louis native, he lives in Laramie.

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