#MWMadness: Top-Seeded Rams Overcome Offensive Woes, Use Defense to Advance
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - The Colorado State Rams are ranked 22nd in the nation and they came into the 2016 Mountain West Women's Basketball Championship riding a 25-game winning streak after winning their third consecutive regular-season league title.
None of those superlatives mattered to coach Ryun Williams, though, knowing his top-seeded Rams had been upset in the tournament each of the last two seasons.
So on Tuesday, it wasn't until Keyora Wharry's put back at the 7:35 mark of the fourth quarter that he felt his team had a little breathing room. It turned out to be the spark the Rams needed in a 53-41 quarterfinal win over No. 8 seed San Diego State.
"The first game is always difficult, I think, as a 1 seed and I think you saw a group maybe a little tight early," Williams said. "I think that was obviously a really big play. And Key's had some really big moments for us this year in some really crucial situations."
The team's second-leading scorer this season, Wharry did a good job of driving into the paint for a six-footer that banked off the backboard and off to the weak side, where she grabbed her own rebound and dropped a two-footer to fuel a 5-0 run that pushed the Rams in front, 42-30.
Wharry finished with eight points and seven rebounds while Elin Gustavsson led the Rams with 21 points and seven rebounds. Jamie Patrick had nine points and four rebounds for the Rams.
"Once we got it settled down in our mind and midway through the third and the fourth quarter, we started playing a little bit more like us," Williams said. "I think that was San Diego State's plan, to shorten the game. They wanted this game in the 50s. And that's okay. We can guard really well. And that's what won us the game today."
The Rams outrebounded San Diego State, 39-29. And making up for a poor shooting performance from long-range, Colorado State was stellar from the free throw line, hitting 10 of 11. Neither team, actually, could find a groove from behind the 3-point line, as the Aztecs hit just 2 of 12, and the Rams were 3 of 10.
Instead, Colorado State relied on a staunch defense that continually frustrated the Aztecs into multiple scoring droughts. And while San Diego State shot a bleak 2 of 10 in the fourth quarter, Colorado State took advantage of the Aztecs' miscues, outscoring them with points off turnovers, 11-4 for the game.
"We knew if we keep them to low scoring we can win the game because we're always going to score, even though it looked pretty ugly, we still scored 53 points," said Ellen Nystrom, who had six points and seven rebounds for Colorado State. "If we keep teams to 41 points, we're going to win games."
Despite poor shooting in the first half, the Aztecs somehow were able to keep things close. San Diego State suffered through a near 7-minute scoring drought in the first quarter, during which it missed seven straight shots as the Rams connected on 6 of 14 (.429) in the first quarter alone.
The Aztecs scored just seven points over a span of 13:51 and didn't get their first points of the second quarter until Deidra Smith's short jumper in the paint at the 5:30 mark made it 16-10 Colorado State.
One third of San Diego State's first-half points came in the final 2:33 of the second quarter. It didn't help that in shooting 7 of 24 over the first two periods, the Aztecs didn't grab any offensive rebounds.
"We had a great game plan to keep the score low. We knew we had a chance if we kept it low," San Diego State coach Stacie Terry said. "We made it look ugly. That wasn't just because they played bad, that had something to do with how we defended. (I'm) really proud of their effort and what we've been able to do in the second half of this conference season and what we were able to do here in the tournament. We leave with heavy hearts but we're excited about the future and what's to come."
Colorado State will face the winner of the New Mexico-San José State contest. Poised for a potential rematch with No. 5 seed New Mexico, which lost to the Rams in Albuquerque, 49-48 on Feb. 24, the Rams know the importance of not looking past anyone thanks to the past two years.
"Everyone in this tournament is really good," Gustavsson said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing, everyone can win against everyone, because everyone had a different mentality in the tournament. I feel like we're just excited. It doesn't matter who we play. As Coach said, (the Los Angeles) Lakers can come in and play. We're always ready."
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez