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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.

LARAMIE — The Wyoming women’s basketball team has been spotless this year when it comes to avoiding series sweeps. The Cowgirls’ first conference loss came at San Diego State. Last week, they beat the Aztecs by 20 in Laramie. The Cowgirls’ second Mountain West loss came against Colorado State, but earlier that month, Wyoming beat the Rams in Fort Collins.

The Cowgirls’ third, and most recent, conference loss was a 60-47 defeat at Fresno State. Wyoming, which has won five straight since then, gets a chance to even the score Saturday at the Arena-Auditorium.

“We definitely need to shoot better, and we will, because we are at home,” Wyoming senior Natalie Baker said. “(Fresno State) will zone a lot, so just moving the zone and knocking down shots and getting shots inside and not relying only on 3s (is important). When we were down there, we were relying just on 3s, and we weren’t hitting them. So we worked a lot of looking inside and finishing there, and we’ll shoot better here for sure.”

The first-place Cowgirls are coming off a two-game road trip that resulted in two wins of two or fewer points. The first was of the comeback variety at San Jose State. The second required Wyoming to cling to a nine-point fourth-quarter lead at New Mexico’s The Pit.

“That’s one thing that Coach always talks to us about is how this is how conference play is,” senior Liv Roberts said. “It’s always been this way for us. We’re not one to blow someone out by 20, 30 points, so we’re kind of used to it. Getting behind (in the first quarter), I feel like we didn’t panic very much, because we’ve been in that position before.

“And yeah, just grinding out those close games is something that we’re used to, and that’s good coming into the tournament and coming into postseason play. Because every game’s going to be close. We’re playing (teams at) the most elite that people have been playing at.”

Sophomore Selale Kepenc scored a career-high 15 points in the game, hitting all four of her 3-point attempts.

“It was amazing,” Baker said. “She plays well there. I don’t know what it is about The Pit for her, but she does well, and so we were all hyping her up before that game. She knew that she was going to play, and she stepped up and went four-for-four, and that’s exactly what we needed.”

The win clinched Wyoming’s spot as a top-five team in the Mountain West, meaning the Cowgirls will get a first-round bye at the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

The next goal is winning a regular-season Mountain West championship.

“No one has done that here who’s on the team now,” Baker said. “It hasn’t been done. So that would just be something new and super exciting. It’s what our goal is right now, and it’s pretty crazy to think that we have three games and no one can stop us. We’re in control, so that’s a good feeling.”

But while Wyoming’s fate is in its own hands, the Cowgirls might not be able to afford a loss, considering three other teams have 11-plus wins. Luckily, winning out is something they feel they can accomplish.

“I just don’t want us to let off the pedal,” Roberts said. “It does feel good to have that bye, because the tournament’s long. You play a lot of games in a short amount of time, so that’s nice to have that bye on Monday coming into Tuesday.

“But yeah, we just need to win these next three games. We have Fresno and then we have Air Force and Boise State. I think we can win all three and go 15-3.”

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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