(AP) — The end came quicker than most expected.
One of the most prolific seasons in the history of the Wyoming Cowgirls basketball program — UW won a record-tying 12 Mountain West games and finished 24-8 overall — ended with a 71-63 loss to Northern Colorado in the first round of the WNIT.
Three weeks after that surprising setback — it was the Cowgirls’ second home loss of the season — UW coach Joe Legerski reflected on the just-completed season and looked ahead to next year.
“This team had a great year,” Legerski said. “Everything that was accomplished by these girls puts them in position to say they were one of the best teams to ever play at Wyoming.”
The 24 victories were the most since the 2006-07 team won 27 games and the WNIT championship. The Cowgirls also played in the postseason for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, and their 12-game improvement from last year, when they finished 12-17, was the best in program history.
“Going into this season, we knew what our players could accomplish,” Legerski said, “but they stepped their games to a higher level.”
Help Needed Inside
While Wyoming is expected to return two starters and five of the top nine in their playing rotation, the Cowgirls also have to replace several key players. UW loses seniors Chaundra Sewell, Ashley Sickles and Brenna Freeze; along with sophomore Alison Gorrell and junior Aubry Boehme, both of whom announced they were leaving the team after the season.
The 6-foot-1 Sewell, a three-year starter, was a first-team all-MW selection after averaging a team-best 14.9 points and a league-best 9.7 rebounds per game. Sickles, in her second year as a starter, averaged 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in earning third-team all-MW honors.
Legerski knows their inside presence will be hard to replace.
“Our inside game is what we have to address,” Legerski said.
Boehme was supposed to provide some relief for Sewell and Sickles in the paint, but the former junior college All-American never worked her way into the rotation.
That leaves UW with three players with minimal experience — 6-2 Whitney Gordon, 6-1 Jordan Sibrel and 6-6 Fatima Thiam — competing for playing time on the blocks, although Legerski mentioned 6-0 junior Fallon Lewis and incoming 6-4 freshman Kaylie Rader could also be in the mix.
“As we look at it, our backcourt is very solid,” Legerski said, “so we have to worry a little more about our frontcourt.
“We have four players in our program right now that can help us there, and we’ve added a freshman in Kaylie Rader, but we’re still looking for help on the inside.”
That could come Wednesday during National Letter of Intent signing day. In addition to Rader, UW received a commitment from Sheridan guard Hailey Ligocki during the early signing period in November.
“We have been looking the whole year at some junior college post players,” Legerski said. “Once again, we’re in position where we’ve identified players and now we have to see if we can get a commitment from some of them.
“We have four scholarships available at this point in time. We’re looking to fill as many as we need to to make this team as strong as possible for next season.”
While the Cowgirls’ frontcourt remains a question mark, their backcourt is set.
Juniors Kayla Woodward and Kaitlyn Mileto combined to average 25.9 points per game from the wing, and junior Chelan Landry and freshman Marquelle Dent proved they were more than capable of stepping in for Gorrell at the point.
In addition to her 14.1 points, Woodward, from Sheridan, averaged 6.3 rebounds and was a second-team all-league selection.
Mileto averaged 11.8 points and shot 41.9 percent from behind the arc in earning third-team all-league honors.
Lewis, a Tongue River High School and Sheridan College graduate, came off the bench to average 6.1 points while connecting on 49 percent of her 3-point field goal attempts.
“We’re very excited about our backcourt,” Legerski said. “Kayla and Kaitlyn really improved their games as sophomores, and I thought Chelan and Marquelle really started playing well the last month of the season.
“And Fallon Lewis, who had a tremendous year for us, is definitely someone who can not only play on the wing but can play on the inside.”
Legerski admitted that he was somewhat surprised by the departures of Gorrell, who started all 32 games at point guard, and Boehme, but added that it’s simply part of today’s game.
“When you look at what’s happening in the game of basketball, there are transfers everywhere,” he said. “Teams have players coming and going. … That just seems to be part of the mix anymore.
“We think it’s a great fit here at Wyoming, but when someone wants to leave, we wish them the best of luck because they’re looking at opportunities that might fit them better.”
This year’s Wyoming team established itself as one of the top offensive teams in the Mountain West; the Cowgirls led the league in points per game (70.2), field goal percentage (44.6), 3-point field goal percentage (37.6) and rebounding margin (+7.9).
That season is complete, however. What lies ahead for next year remains to be seen, although Legerski is excited to see how it plays out.
“Each and every team takes on a new identity,” Legerski said. “It’s not as simple as replacing the seniors that graduate; more so, it’s what identity does the new team take on and how do they figure out how to win.
“We want to find out who is going to step forward for this group. The opportunities are there for players to step up and make an impact.”