LARAMIE – The last time coach Joe Legerski and the University of Wyoming women’s basketball team played Pepperdine was in 2013. UW won and Legerski picked up his 200th win.
More than 100 victories and nearly six years later, UW and Pepperdine played again, and this time, the Cowgirls extended their memorable postseason run.
True freshman Karla Erjavec made a free throw with 9.7 seconds to play, and UW forced a Pepperdine miss at the buzzer for a 61-60 victory in the third round of the WNIT in front of a season-best crowd of 5,134 at the Arena-Auditorium on Thursday night. The crowd was the 10th-largest in Cowgirls history.
UW (25-8) advances to the quarterfinals where it plays at Arizona at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The Cowgirls had two fouls to give after Erjavec’s made free throw. They used them well and left Pepperdine (22-12) just 3.2 seconds to get a shot off. UW did a good job defending the Waves’ leading scorer, 5-foot-11 senior Yasmine Robinson-Bacote, who scored a game-high 26 points. Robinson-Bacote didn’t touch the ball on the final possession. Sophomore guard Rose Pflug got off a jumper, and even though the ball hung on the rim for a bit, it didn’t go through the basket.
“In any postseason run you have to find a way to win, and it may end up being from defense, and it may be from a player you didn’t expect,” Legerski said.
The defense was there as Pepperdine shot 39.3 percent (24 of 61) and was 2 of 7 from 3-point range. Despite Robinson-Bacote’s big game, no other Pepperdine player scored in double figures.
“(Robinson-Bacote) was quick, could finish and had secondary moves,” said UW senior forward Bailee Cotton, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, who guarded Robinson-Bacote a lot in the game.
“Any time you thought you knew where she was going, she would switch it up. Her quickness gave us a lot of issues, but luckily, we kept everyone else under double digits and that was a big factor in why we won.”
The unexpected player was true freshman post Tereza Vitulova, who came off the bench and scored nine points, including UW’s first six points of the fourth quarter. It was Vitulova’s first double-digit scoring game since Feb. 6 against Air Force. Her eight minutes played also were the most since that Air Force game.
“She knew she was going to get into the game, and she brought an energy and toughness,” Legerski said. “When Pepperdine went small, I had faith to stay with Tereza. We went to her, and she delivered.”
UW didn’t make it easy on itself in this game. It was 8 of 15 from the free-throw line, and 1 of 4 in the fourth quarter. Cotton, who led the Cowgirls with 15 points and three blocked shots, missed two free throws with 38.1 seconds to play and UW leading 60-58.
A jumper by Robinson-Bacote tied the game at 60 with 25.8 seconds to play. That basket came off an offensive rebound.
Out of a timeout, Legerski trusted Erjavec to make a play with the game on the line.
“When I got the ball it was wide open, so I just took it and drew the contact and the foul,” Erjavec said. “I’m glad one of those free throws went down.”
UW entered the game averaging nearly seven 3-pointers per game. It tied a season-low seven attempts, but made three. Pepperdine switched a lot defensively and took away the 3-point shot for the most part. UW countered by outscoring Pepperdine 40-18 in the paint. It could have been more, but the Cowgirls missed 16 shots that were either layups, or in and around the paint. Seven of those misses came in the first quarter.
No other UW player scored in double digits other than Cotton’s 16 points. UW’s leading scorer – senior forward Marta Gomez – had just five points on 2-of-8 shooting. But Legerski said senior forward Sladjana Rakovic gave UW a big lift off the bench with six points and a game-high eight rebounds, including an offensive rebound late that set up Erjavec’s game-winning free throw.
“We’ve got to be better at the free-throw line. We could have made things a lot easier on us than it was,” Legerski said. “I really thought atmosphere in here was electric. We adjusted to what was happening.
“As we keep advancing, the energy level needs to be there, the focus and composure needs to be there, and as I always tell them: have some fun with what you’re doing.”
— UW is 17-10 in 10 appearances in the WNIT, and 16-6 under Legerski. This is the second-farthest the Cowgirls have advanced in this tournament. It won the event in 2007, and also advanced to the third round in 2010.
— The Cowgirls lead the series with Pepperdine 7-3, and has won three straight.
— Gomez played in her 127th game for UW, second-most in school history.
— UW improved to 21-4 this season when it has allowed less than 70 points, and all 12 of Pepperdine’s losses this season have come when it has scored less than 68 points.
— Cotton is now has the sixth-most rebounds in a season in school history with 287.
— Cotton drew one offensive foul in the game to increase her total to 21 on the season.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.