LAS VEGAS — The season likely won’t end for Wyoming’s women’s basketball team this week, but the Cowgirls’ postseason fate will once again be decided before it’s over.
Like most seasons, Wyoming needs to cut down the nets inside the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday if it wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the reality likely facing every team in the Mountain West tournament, which started with opening-round games Sunday.
The MW, like many mid-major conferences, is often a one-bid league. Boise State is the only team from the league predicted to be a part of this year’s NCAA Tournament field in ESPN’s latest tournament projections, and that’s only because the Broncos are projected to win the conference tournament and get the league’s automatic bid after claiming the MW regular-season title.
That makes it a cut-and-dry scenario for everyone involved.
“Everyone knows it comes down to these three days in March to secure that bid,” Wyoming coach Joe Legerski said. “It’s pretty clear-cut for everyone coming in here, so we’re going to do the best we can being the third seed. That has challenges in and of itself, and I think there are a number of teams that can put it all together for three days.”
While Boise State, which has won back-to-back conference tournament championships, is the favorite, Wyoming has proven over the course of the season that it’s got as good a chance as anybody of making an upset run. The Cowgirls, who earned a bye into the quarterfinals and will meet Utah State in their tournament opener Monday, were in contention for the regular-season title down the stretch before finishing two games back of Boise State atop the league standings.
Wyoming handed the Broncos one of their two conference losses back on Jan. 26. The only MW foe the Cowgirls haven’t beaten this season is New Mexico, which won both teams’ regular-season finale Thursday to send Wyoming to a third-place finish.
“We know we can beat the top teams in our league, and we’ve shown we can play with everyone,” senior forward Bailee Cotton said. “It’s huge for us.”
A semifinal rematch against the second-seeded Lobos is possible should Wyoming advance, but the Cowgirls know they’ll have to be on top of their game regardless of who they play if they want to give themselves a real shot of earning just their second NCAA Tournament bid in program history.
Leaving Las Vegas without a championship will likely relegate Wyoming to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament — a tournament they’ve played in the last two seasons after a couple of close calls in the conference tournament. Wyoming finished as the league’s runner-up during the 2016-17 season before being upset by Fresno State in its tournament opener. Last year, the Cowgirls were the tournament’s No. 3 seed before coming up just short of a championship game berth in a 67-63 semifinal loss to seventh-seeded Nevada.
It only adds to the motivation this time around for Wyoming, which made its only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s exciting,” junior guard Taylor Rusk said. “I think how close we came last year gives us some motivation. Last year, I don’t think we had a lot of experience in the tournament, but just having that edge and knowing with the seniors this could be the last time we all play together, I think it gives us really good motivation, heart and knowing if this is the last time, we’ve just got to give it our all.”
The Cowgirls are led by Cotton (11.3 points, 9.1 rebounds) and fellow senior Marta Gomez (15.7, 4.8), who were named to the coaches’ all-conference team released Sunday. Cotton was also voted the league’s defensive player of the year after leading Wyoming in league play with 18 blocks and 28 steals. Karla Erjavec (team-high 101 assists) was named to the all-freshman team.
The trio has helped assure Wyoming of its third straight 20-win season, but the Cowgirls will need three more this week in order to reach that ultimate, elusive postseason goal.
“This is NCAA or bust,” Cotton said, “and it’s going to be big for everyone to come in with energy.”