After last year's COVID-19 cancellations, the NCAA basketball tournaments are back, and one women's team in the Mountain West is making history.
The Wyoming Cowgirls just won their first-ever Mountain West Conference tournament championship and they're heading to the Big Dance.
Last week, the Cowgirls celebrated their title by dousing their coach with their water bottles.
“We won, we get to hang a banner in our gym — like, we did it,” Quinn Weidemann told the Mountain West News Bureau.
Weidemann has been a basketball player since elementary school. She remembers playing in the YMCA league as a 9- or 10-year-old. The junior guard was named the tournament's most valuable player last week.
The Cowgirls team beat the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the first round. Then, in the second round, they faced powerhouse Boise State University, which had won four straight Mountain West tournament championships.
“I was very nervous, and then after we got past them, I was just kind of like, ‘OK, we got this. This is our time,’ ” Weidemann said.
Then it was on to Fresno State for the Mountain West title game. Wyoming played an intense defensive game, which forced Fresno State out of its comfort zone on offense.
“We might not have the best individual players — the players that go one-on-one or the best individual defensive players,” Weidemann said. “But the way that we play as a team, I think, just propelled us to making it to the championship game and end up winning.”
The win means the Cowgirls now have an automatic spot in the NCAA's single-elimination national tournament.
“The big thing is that you know you get to put on that uniform one more time,” said Heather Ezell, the Cowgirls' associate head coach.
Ezell played college ball at Iowa State and made three trips to the NCAA tournament, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2009.
“You get to walk out with your teammates and play the game that you love one more time,” Ezell said. “I still talk to teammates and that's what we talk about — those memories.”
And now she gets to do it all again — but this time as a coach.
“You're so proud for these kids, everything they've done. You're so happy for them because they're the ones out there competing. Yeah, we put a game plan, but they're the ones who have to do it,” Ezell said.
And it's been an especially tough year.
“Dealing with COVID and the uncertainty of every game, getting tested in the morning three times a week, and then making sure that everything was taken care of, going to practice, going home, going to school,” said Tommi Olson.
She says the tournament championship is special because of all the sacrifices she and her teammates made over the last year.
The coaches knew this would be a tough season, so to help motivate the team, the staff surprised the players with personalized videos from their family members.
Olson's mom also played basketball for Wyoming. She says it's been exciting to compare their basketball experiences.
“Our game is similar,” Olson said. “She was always super active on defense, and so I feel like I kinda get that from her.”
Gerald Mattinson is Wyoming's head coach. He's been on the program's coaching staff since 2003.
“I think you see a league, a conference, that values women's sports, women's basketball,” Mattinson said.
As does the growing fanbase, he said. And he's noticing a change in player development.
“I've seen a more competitive base on the women's side,” he said. Teams are allowed 15 scholarships, and “you're getting 15 good players who can compete for positions.”
He said that's because girls now have more opportunities to play in club leagues and can refine their skills at a younger age.
On Monday, the Cowgirls hosted a watch party for the national selection show and learned who they would play next – UCLA on March 22 in Austin, Texas.
“We'll defend, we'll play really hard,” Mattinson said. “But everything else, you know, breathe it all in, take it all in.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.