Fresno State women fall short in final seconds of conference championship

Hanna Cavinder dribbles against a pair of Wyoming defenders in Fresno State's championship loss versus Wyoming on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at the Thomas and Mack Center. (Jesus Cano/The Collegian)

With Fresno State trailing 59-56 and four seconds left, Haley Cavinder pulled up for a game-tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer. There was more behind that shot than the Bulldogs’ 2021 Mountain West title hopes.

Fresno State had been on the championship stage a year before, losing by four points to Boise State in controversial fashion. Head coach Jaime White spoke all season about getting back to the title game. And here the Bulldogs were, one shot away from keeping their dream alive. 

The ball was in the hands of the 2021 Mountain West Player of the Year. But instead of a game-tying buzzer beater, Wyoming guard Alba Sanchez-Ramos blocked Cavinder’s attempt, clinching the Cowgirls’ first conference tournament championship in program history. 

“We are so incredibly excited, especially to be the first team in Wyoming’s history to win this tournament,” Wyoming guard Emma Weidemann said. “And every person doesn’t even have words to describe how they feel right now.”

For the second straight year, Fresno State walked through the colored confetti of its opponents, hearing the cheers echo through an empty Thomas and Mack Center.

The Bulldogs fell short of winning a MW tournament championship and a bid to the NCAA tournament once again, losing to Wyoming, 59-56. An emotional White emphasized the sacrifices her team made in order to even play this season.

“It’s not an easy year for them, especially being away from their families, not being able to see anybody and not being a normal college student,” White said.

Wyoming faced numerous obstacles during its season as well, entering the tournament with its most recent game on Feb.13. The last five games of the Cowgirls’ season were canceled, causing the team to go almost a month without competition before entering the tournament as the No. 7 seed.

Wyoming won four games in four days, first against No. 10 seed Utah State on Sunday. The Cowgirls then defeated two higher seeds, No. 2 UNLV in the quarterfinals and No. 6 Boise State in the semifinals, before knocking off Fresno State. 

The four-day run earned head coach Gerald Mattinson his first conference championship in his 18 years on the Cowgirls’ bench.

“I’m a Wyoming guy, born and raised in Wyoming,” Mattinson said. “So for me, to have the great privilege and opportunity to have been part of this for not quite 20 years…for that long of a time, it’s just extra special.”

White said it was not Cavinder’s final shot — or the plays that preceded it — which cost Fresno State a satisfying end to its challenging season. Instead, it was a culmination of Bulldog mistakes that cost the championship.

“For one, it wasn’t lost in the last seconds of the game,” White said. “It’s clear that we didn’t do our job in the second quarter. I didn’t think our defensive intensity was ideal for the whole game.”

The Bulldogs’ offense opened strong against the No. 1 defense in the conference, committing no turnovers and shooting 50% in the first quarter. Fresno State never trailed in the first as it raced to a 22-16 lead.

Fresno State’s second quarter performance was a stark contrast from how the team started the game.

The Bulldogs scored on its first possession of the quarter and never again until halftime. In the second quarter, the Cowgirls affirmed their standing as the stingiest defense in the MW — they held the Bulldogs to 1-for-12 shooting, slowed the pace of play down and forced four Fresno State turnovers.  

“Wyoming is probably one of the better defensive teams in the league, so definitely kudos to them,” White said. “I just thought we were not being as patient as we could at times, [not] trying to run a little bit more offense to get open driving lanes, maybe some kick outs.”

Wyoming stormed back to take a 32-24 lead into halftime, using a 16-0 run to close the first half. The Cowgirls’ defense tightened up, keeping the Bulldogs scoreless in the final 9 minutes and 50 seconds of the quarter. 

At the start of the third quarter, Hanna Cavinder scored the Bulldogs’ first basket in their last 12 attempts. Then, Aly Gamez knocked down a step-back 3-pointer to cut Fresno State’s deficit to 34-29 with 7:51 left in the third.

Fresno State cut its deficit down to 42-39 with a 6-0 run, before Weidemann drained a 3-pointer to stop the run. Weidemann knocked down two triples in the quarter — on her way to a team-high 14 points — and the Cowgirls held a 47-41 lead entering the final quarter.

Wyoming opened up a 9-point lead before Fresno State went on a 9-2 run to close the gap to 52-50 with 4:22 left. The Cowgirls extended their lead with a layup from forward Grace Ellis and a 3-pointer from guard McKinley Bradshaw. As a result, Fresno State trailed 57-50 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Hanna Cavinder led a comeback attempt, scoring a layup through traffic and converting another off a steal. Haley added a spinning layup to cut Wyoming’s lead to 57-56 with 32 seconds left.

The Bulldogs missed three chances in the final 30 seconds to either take the lead or extend the game. First, Maddi Utti missed a jumper inside the lane. On the next Bulldogs’ possession, Haley Cavinder turned the ball over when it bounced off her leg and went out of bounds. After Ellis made two free throws for Wyoming, Haley Cavinder missed her last chance 3-point attempt. 

“Well, I mean I thought we had a shot to win it,” White said. “I thought we drew up a great play on the baseline and we had a shot to go up one, so I thought we did a pretty good job.”

Fresno State was held to 37% shooting and zero bench points throughout the game. Senior Aly Gamez led the Bulldogs’ effort with 15 points and reminisced on the 2020-21 season.

“I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t win, but I’m proud of our team for our year that we’ve had and for coming together,” Gamez said. “[We were] fighting until the very end and that’s all you can really ask for.”

Fresno State awaits a potential invitation to the WNIT, something White and Gamez were both in favor of participating in.

“I really like the NIT. I really appreciate what they’ve done in this year. It’s looking a little bit more like an NCAA tournament as far as going to a site and being able to play at one site, maybe getting a couple games or having a consolation bracket,” White said. “So I think that’s a cool thing they’re trying to do.”

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