‘You can’t fear them’
AUSTIN, Texas -- Gerald Mattinson will be the first one to admit it -- this experience is unique.
When his Wyoming Cowgirls basketball team stepped onto the court inside the expansive, 72,000-seat Alamodome for practice late last week, it caused a moment of reflection.
"Come on, you're gonna be blown away by it a little bit. I'm blown away by it," he said of the San Antonio arena. "You walk into this big massive area, and you're on the court and you get to see everything that's in there. There's two video boards up there as big as our arena, to be honest with you. I mean, they are huge. You got the big steamboat up there and they're all taking pictures."
This is just the second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. Wyoming is one of 64 teams competing for a shot at a National Championship. Did anyone really think they would make it this far?
Who could blame them for being in awe?
Mattinson's upstart team stunned the league by winning four straight at the Mountain West Tournament before claiming its first-ever title. Wyoming didn't play a single game for 24 days leading up to the tourney in Las Vegas. There, they took down the conference's No. 2 seed, the four-time defending MW champions and the highest-scoring team in the regular season.
The narrative changes a bit tonight.
The No. 14 seed will now get a crack at the third-seeded UCLA Bruins in the opening round of the Big Dance in Austin, Texas. The task, yeah, it's a rather large one. Though this UW group -- and its coaches -- are soaking in the experience, that doesn't mean this is a vacation.
After the selfies were snapped and the Cowgirls' practice digs were fully scoped out, Mattinson said simply, it was back to work.
"They were into it and ready to play," Wyoming's second-year head coach said. "Like we talked about -- we'll talk about it more today and we'll talk about it tomorrow -- yesterday was more about ourselves. We kind of want to try to get back into a routine with one day at practice just working on us a little bit."
There was another message delivered, too.
"You got to respect these guys, there's no doubt. I mean, they are a very, very good team," Mattinson said of UCLA. "You know, they are where they're at for a reason, but you can't fear them. You can't do that with anybody."
The Bruins enter Monday night coming off a 75-55 setback in the Pac-12 tournament championship against Stanford. The Cardinal is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA's. UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere, the former Ms. Colorado Basketball, scored a game-high 30 points on 12-of-26 shooting. Guard Charisma Osborne netted 11 points and hit a team-high three triples.
Mattinson said UCLA can flat-out shoot, but the transition game is what caught his eye on film. So did the Bruins' physicality and aggressiveness in the paint.
"They're going to present things that we just haven't seen this year," he said. "You know, we have played nobody all year where the five leads to the break, so that kind of sometimes can cause you some problems and how you're going to play."
The Associated Press ranked UCLA No. 9 in the country when the regular season came to a close in early March. The Bruins finished the season 16-5 overall. Just two of those losses came against teams that weren't in the Top 25.
The title underdog though is nothing new for this UW crew.
Lyman's McKinley Bradshaw leads the Cowgirls' offense, averaging 11.7 points per game. Just behind her on the stats sheet, MW Tournament MVP Quinn Weidemann is right at 11 points per outing. Alba Sanchez Ramos is netting 10.1.
Wyoming features a balanced scoring attack, but where they hang the hat is on the defensive end of the floor. In four games in Sin City, UW's opponents averaged just 47.8 points per night. How dominant was that run? Utah State, UNLV, Boise State and Fresno State connected on an average of 31.1% of its shots against the Cowgirls. They also turned the ball over to Wyoming an eye-popping 63 times.
The Cowgirls (14-9) will likely need a repeat of that if they hope to make it to the field of 32 and another game Wednesday in the Lone Star State.
So, what's Mattinson's big game plan? It's simple really.
"You have to understand that, I just got to be me and we just got to be us," he said. "If you do that and go out and compete, the rest takes care of itself. But, if you fear them, then it's going to be a long night for us."
Tip time is scheduled for 8 p.m. MST tonight. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
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