LARAMIE – Sladjana Rakovic called the five minutes she played on Dec. 20 against South Dakota State some of the best five minutes she has played during her career.
Not because of the statistics – Rakovic missed her only shot and grabbed one rebound – but for far more important reasons.
Like finally getting to play in her senior season.
It had been a long, painful and sometimes frustrating road for the University of Wyoming senior in finally getting to play against the Jackrabbits.
It started during the summer when Rakovic suffered what she thought was a sprained ankle while playing for her national team in Montenegro. That turned out to be a tendon injury.
Rakovic was sidelined for everything for the Cowgirls early on – fall workouts and the start of practice in late October.
Then, having returned to the floor in a limited capacity just before the start of the regular season, Rakovic caught a finger in a teammate’s jersey during practice. What she thought was just a jammed finger turned out to be broken.
Rakovic had two choices – try to play through the pain with a splint or have surgery and miss the entire nonconference schedule.
“It was either have surgery or my finger was not going to look like a finger until we finish the season,” Rakovic said with a laugh. “The way (UW associate athletic trainer) Megan (Jensen) explained everything, and knowing she is always here for us to get better, it was an easy decision to have the surgery.”
More rehabilitation and missed games and practice time followed. Rakovic said the support she got from family, Jensen and Mike Cotterman, the Cowgirls’ director of sports performance, was significant.
“(Jensen and Cotterman) were there every day for me when I wanted to do more stuff in the training room or the weight room,” Rakovic said.
Rakovic was cleared to play in the days leading up to the game with SDSU, but Cowgirls coach Joe Legerski wondered if it might not be better just to keep Rakovic out until Mountain West play started.
He went with playing Rakovic.
“That was probably the best five minutes I’ve enjoyed playing in a game,” she said. “It showed me why I chose to play this sport and battled through the injuries.”
Now comes the challenge of reintroducing Rakovic into the Cowgirls’ rotation.
UW went 7-2 in nonconference play with a mainly seven-player rotation, one that included three freshmen and no true small forwards.
Rakovic, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.9 rebounds off the bench last season, figured to be a key player at small forward, along with Selale Kepenc, who also suffered a knee injury during the summer and will miss the season.
Junior Taylor Rusk and freshmen Karla Erjavec and Quinn Weidemann have filled in at small forward so far with Erjavec starting.
“We’ve been without a (small forward) all fall and our team has done a tremendous job stepping up,” Legerski said. “We get a taller player, a more physical player (in Rakovic) that should benefit us from a rebounding standpoint.”
The Cowgirls will need whatever they can get from Rakovic with conference play starting at 7 tonight at preseason MW favorite Boise State.
Legerski said he’ll continue to ease Rakovic back into the rotation, but doesn’t want to upset what the Cowgirls have going.
Neither does Rakovic.
“I’m ready to play when Coach Joe calls my number,” Rakovic said. “I just want to help the team in the moments I can help.
“I’m going to work myself back into the position where (Legerski) can count on me every single second. Coach will know when to send me in and what’s best for the team.”
And what’s best for the team is to have Rakovic back in the rotation.
“We have some huge talent and we’re all willing to work to get better,” Rakovic said. “We’re hungry to win games and the best part of this team is no one thinks about themselves.
“That’s what we’re thinking going into conference.”
About Boise State
The Broncos were 9-2 in nonconference play with their only losses coming to No. 5-ranked Louisville at home and at Washington State.
Boise State won both the MW regular season and postseason titles last season, with the regular-season championship coming on a 67-63 win over the Cowgirls in Laramie. UW also could have won the MW title by winning that contest.
“It was a chance for us to do something that’s never been done before and they knocked us off,” Rakovic said. “The ones who were here last year are hungry to show them that we can beat them.”
UW beat Boise State last season, winning 66-51 in Boise on Jan. 6, 2018, for only its second win in Boise.
Boise State starts a veteran group of two seniors and three juniors, all averaging at least 7.6 points per game.
“They have tremendous shooters that put a great deal of pressure on you defensively,” Legerski said. “And they change up what they want to do defensively.
“We’ll see a couple different presses, they’ll change up and play man and zone and a combination of that within a possession.”
Today will be UW’s first game since Dec. 20.
Scott Nulph is the WyoSports assistant editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3324. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottNulph.