LARAMIE, Wyo. — With the season hanging in the balance for Wyoming’s women’s basketball team, Joe Legerski knew exactly who he was going to.
It wasn’t Taylor Rusk, a junior who was playing in her seventh career postseason game. It wasn’t Bailee Cotton, though there was a chance the senior forward could be involved. And it wasn’t leading scorer Marta Gomez, who wasn’t even on the floor for Wyoming’s final possession.
With the Cowgirls and Pepperdine tied at 60 with less than 30 seconds left in their WNIT third-round matchup Thursday at the Arena-Auditorium, Wyoming’s coach put the ball in the hands of true freshman Karla Erjavec. Cotton got in position to set a high ball screen for Erjavec, who was supposed to milk the clock before coming off the screen and then deciding whether to drive in for the final shot or dish to Cotton depending on how Pepperdine defended the pick and roll.
It didn’t go exactly as planned. Erjavec saw an opening down the left side of the lane, vacated the screen and took off with 12 seconds left.
“We agreed to take as much time as we needed so that they could not get a shot up, but at that point, I got the ball and it was wide open, so I just took it, got contact and a foul,” Erjavec said.
She sank one of her two free throws, but the faster-than-anticipated drive did allow Pepperdine to get one last shot up with 3.2 seconds left. It caromed off the side of the rim, and the Cowgirls earned a quarterfinal date with Arizona on Sunday with a 61-60 win.
A lot to ask of a freshman in that moment? That’s an understatement. But it’s also a level of trust that’s been built among a coach and a group of youngsters that continues to play well beyond its years.
“Karla has played so well this year,” Legerski said. “I know she’s a freshman in standing, but right now we’ve played 33 games. She’s probably playing 30 minutes a night. She’s a tremendous competitor.”
Another true freshman, Quinn Weidemann, was also on the floor for Wyoming’s final possession. Four days after sinking a timely 3-pointer in the final minute of the Cowgirls’ second-round win over South Alabama, Weidemann had seven points, three rebounds, a block and an assist.
Meanwhile, Erjavec, who’s started every game this season, has taken her game to another level in the postseason. Averaging nine points for the season, Erjavec has reached double figures three times since the start of the Mountain West tournament, including a career-high 19-point outing against South Alabama.
At times Thursday, there were three freshmen on the court for Wyoming. Tereza Vitulova didn’t play in the Cowgirls’ WNIT opener against Northern Colorado and logged just six minutes against South Alabama, but with Cotton and Gomez dealing with foul trouble, the 6-foot-2 forward helped pick up the slack.
Vitulova had nine points and three rebounds in just eight minutes, scoring most of those points when Cotton started the fourth quarter on the bench after picking up her third foul. Vitulova scored Wyoming’s first six points of the quarter and combined with Erjavec for a 9-0 run that gave the Cowgirls a three-possession lead with 7 minutes, 18 seconds left.
“It just shows that they’re confident,” Cotton said. “We’ve known this whole year we have some really talented freshmen, and they showed that (Thursday). They played with poise, they finished their shots — the tough ones — and took advantage of the middle.”
Added Legerski, “(Vitulova) knew she was going to get into the game, and I thought she brought an energy to us and a toughness. When they went small, I had a faith to stay with Tereza. We went to her, and she delivered.”
They’re all delivering on the biggest stage of their young careers.
“Sometimes that’s what’s best about freshmen. They’re just having fun,” Legerski said. “They’re not used to maybe how big the moment is.”