Cowgirls' future shines bright during MW Tournament run
Mar. 11—LAS VEGAS — It's no question who led the University of Wyoming women's basketball team this winter.
Super-seniors Quinn Weidemann and Tommi Olson have been the backbone of the Cowgirls, who finished as the runner-up at this week's Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas. UW lost 71-60 to No. 21-ranked UNLV in the title game on Wednesday in the Thomas & Mack Arena.
Weidemann and Olson's contributions to the program have been well documented of late, including the pair both being recognized for senior night late last month in Laramie. It was no surprise to see the dynamic duo continue to step up in key moments during UW's run through the conference tournament this week.
The true surprise was seeing how much Weidemann and Olson's leadership has rubbed off on some of the other players in the program. The Cowgirls have the back-to-back MW freshman of the year winners on their roster, with sophomore Allyson Fertig earning the honor last year and redshirt freshman Malene Pedersen winning the award this week.
UW beat San Jose State and Colorado State in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. The loss to the Rebels was the Cowgirls' first in their past six games.
The most promising part of UW's runner-up finish at the conference tournament wasn't the second-place trophy.
Both Fertig and Pedersen were named to the All-MW Tournament team for their performances in the Cowgirls' three games in Las Vegas.
Pedersen, who transferred to UW from Kansas State last summer, scored 45 points and collected 15 rebounds in the tournament. She finished with 24 points and five rebounds against SJSU and 14 points, six rebounds and five assists against CSU.
"I think Malene has just stepped up massively for us," junior Grace Ellis said. "There's been games where she's been just a straight shooter or where she's just on the block. I think she's just done a really good job of scoring at three levels for us now. She's just become a threat everywhere.
"When she has a really good game, it just opens stuff up for other people, and when other people have a good game, it just opens stuff up for her. She's consistently stepping up to the plate for us, which is amazing, and we can't ask any more from her."
Fertig also had a strong first two games of the MW tournament, with back-to-back double-doubles against the Spartans and Rams. The sophomore finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds against SJSU and 15 points and 15 rebounds against the Rams.
"I have to tell you, Allyson has turned into one of the best leaders that we have on our court," first-year coach Heather Ezell said after the win over CSU. "Our players look to her, and so it's going, OK, things aren't going well. Let's get to Allyson on the block and let her take care of business and let her get us back rolling, and that's what we were able to do."
UNLV was able to keep both Fertig and Pedersen quiet during the conference title game, which may have been the difference for the Cowgirls. Pedersen finished with just seven points, four rebounds and two assists, while Fertig had seven points, two rebounds and two assists in just over 22 minutes.
A win over the Rebels would have been a nice way to end a dominating run in Las Vegas, but the Cowgirls came away from the conference tournament with plenty of valuable experience going forward. Fertig was able to get a third matchup with UNLV's All-MW center Desi-Rae Young, something that could go a long way into her development as a post player in the near future for the Cowgirls.
Young put up 28 points and 17 rebounds against UW in the championship game.
Another shining bright spot for UW's three games in Las Vegas was sophomore Emily Mellema. The point guard was brought in to replace Olson in the Cowgirls' starting lineup, but that plan was delayed a year when Olson returned for another season.
Mellema played more than 20 minutes in just one of the Cowgirls' past seven games, but that one outlier was a 25-minute night against the Rebels in the conference title game. She was tied for second on the team with 10 points and added three assists.
The title game was Mellema's second night scoring double-digits in the conference tournament. She put up 10 points against the Rams during the semifinal round.
"Yeah, it's fun," Mellema said about seeing more playing time. "It's definitely helping me out going into the next game, but it's about having all my teammates helping me, too. I think, like coach said, all 13 of us, we wouldn't win these games without each person. Every game, we have a new person stepping up, so it's really exciting to see what happens."
Olson played just 14 minutes against UNLV and 16 against CSU. She had no problems taking a backseat to a younger teammate because the game plan of focusing on a bigger lineup called for it.
"Tournament time definitely helps mature people," Olson said about Mellema. "She definitely took a big step from yesterday to today. It was good to see her step up and contribute and, not only that, but the experience she'll gain and the leadership skills she'll take away for the rest of her career."
Mellema was visibly frustrated near the end of UW's win over SJSU. She was tasked with playing the point during mop-up duty, and the Spartans defense did everything they could to frustrate Mellema and get under her skin.
Mellema responded with back-to-back 10-point nights to end the conference tournament.
"I told her probably too many times, she's probably tired of me, how much I believe in that kid," Ezell said about Mellema after the win over CSU. "She has the ability to be really, really good. She's got to believe it just as much. That's what I told her at the end of that San Jose game. 'I know they might be fouling you, whatever. I just believe in you and being able to take care of the ball and push through.'
"... I give her credit because she came into this game confident and showed it right from the start when she got in. She was in attack mode. I'm just really proud of that growth that you have seen for her to go from the game that she finished with last night to this one tonight."
The Cowgirls will likely have a bid in the WNIT to end the season. The tournament will release its official bracket Monday morning.
Alex Taylor covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at email@example.com or 269-364-3560. Follow him on Twitter at @alex_m_taylor22.