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Sports / Recreation

Surprising women's hoops team making history

March 7, 2014
By Tony Phifer

The CSU women's basketball team heads into the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas favored to win the championship and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Members of the CSU women's basketball team celebrate during a big win over San Diego State at Moby Arena.Anyone who saw this coming has a crystal ball the size of the moon and the vision of Nostradamus. The Rams have come from nowhere – and everywhere – to put together the most memorable season in more than a decade.

“We had some nice talent coming back and some nice talent coming in, so we knew we had some bullets,” second-year coach Ryun Williams said. “Putting all of those pieces together was the big thing, because team chemistry is always the most important factor. But I don’t think anyone at the beginning believed we would be able to accomplish some of the things we have accomplished. That’s what makes it so gratifying.”

Blend of old, new

That “nice talent coming back” includes seniors Sam Martin, Haley Thompson and Alicia Nichols, and sophomore Caitlin Duffy – all of whom played significant roles for the Rams last season when they finished 11-19. The “nice talent coming in” includes six new players from Europe who had never seen CSU prior to signing.

Seven European players, including three Swedes, have played key roles in leading the Rams to a stellar year.  “I was skeptical, to be honest,” said Thompson, a three-year player for the Rams. “I was concerned about team chemistry, playing time, starting over as a team – all of those things. But once we all got together and started developing relationships, it was great.”

The transformation wasn’t immediate. The Rams struggled early, needing overtime to beat Division II Colorado-Colorado Springs in the opener and losing three of their first seven games. But those early losses – all to quality opponents – let the Rams know they had potential.

Sacrificing for the team

“I think it was a gradual progression where these kids came to practice every day wanting to get better,” Williams said. “You have to credit these kids. Roles have been sacrificed, and playing time has been sacrificed, in order to help the team win.”

Coach Ryun Williams has blended a mix of veterans and newcomers to produce a conference champion in his second season at CSU.No player better illustrates that than Thompson, who averaged 23.4 minutes of playing time last year but now averages just 7.2 minutes per game. Once a key player with 66 career starts, she now plays a supportive role from the bench.

“A kid like Haley, she’s the reason we’ve become a team,” Williams said. “She has handled her new role with such great class. She does whatever it takes to help us win. Sometimes that’s by playing, sometimes it’s by cheering on her teammates from the bench. She has been great.”

Martin leads the way

Meanwhile, fellow senior Martin has been a stabilizing force on the court, leading the team in scoring, blocked shots and free throw percentage. Overall, six players – four of them newcomers – are averaging 9 or more points per game.

The balanced scoring and overall improved talent level helped the Rams storm through their Mountain West schedule with a 15-3 record, earning them the school’s first conference title in 11 years. Their 23-6 record entering the conference tournament, which follows last year’s 11-19 mark, makes this the biggest one-year turnaround in the program’s storied history.

The big prize: the Big Dance

Still the Rams know that to reach their ultimate goal – the NCAA Tournament – they will have to win the MW Tournament and earn the league’s automatic berth in the Big Dance. Anything short of the MW title means they will play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Either way, it will be CSU’s first postseason berth in 10 years.

“I’m so blessed to be here,” said Nichols. “Things really couldn’t have gone any better this season. To be part of this team that is making history at CSU is something I’ll never forget.”