Bailee Cotton

University of Wyoming senior forward Bailee Cotton, left, looks over the University of Denver defense Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.

Joe Legerski’s idea of what his University of Wyoming women’s basketball team would look like in December was far different back in August than it is now.

In August, Legerski was expecting big contributions from senior forward Sladjana Rakovic and junior forward Selale Kepenc. A knee injury to Kepenc ended her season before it even started, and foot and hand injuries have Rakovic sidelined until January.

Still, UW is 5-2, with two nonconference games remaining on the schedule. The Cowgirls host Idaho at 1 p.m. today at Arena-Auditorium and host South Dakota State on Dec. 20.

Losing two prospective starters would seem to be a crippling blow to a team that also lost two starters and a top reserve to graduation from last season.

How has UW overcome all of that to win five of its first seven games?

“The leadership of the veteran players, and our freshmen have really played well,” Legerski said.

The Cowgirls start three seniors in forward Marta Gomez, forward Bailee Cotton and guard Clara Tapia.

The three combine to average 30.5 points, 15.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists so far. But even more than their on-court contributions, Legerski points to a keen chemistry with team.

“This team seems to be a tight-knit group, and that’s part of their success,” Legerski said. “You need talent, but chemistry is a big component. The senior class has shown the leadership and has made so many of the decisions.”

Gomez leads UW at 16.6 points – fourth in the Mountain West – while also averaging 4.6 rebounds. Cotton is averaging 11.0 points and 8.1 rebounds, third in the MW.

UW is also getting 9.0 points from junior guard Taylor Rusk, 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds off the bench from senior forward Rachelle Tucker, and 2.9 points and 3.7 assists from Tapia.

But without the play of UW’s freshman class, it’s unlikely the Cowgirls would be where they are right now.

Forward Tereza Vitulova (10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds) and guards Karla Erjavec (7.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals) and Quinn Weidemann (6.0 points, 2.0 assists) have all not only contributed, but helped win games for the Cowgirls.

Especially Tuesday against Denver.

Erjavec led UW with 18 points, and her 3-pointer and three-point play on back-to-back possessions with four minutes to go gave the Cowgirls the lead for good. Vitulova added seven points and Weidemann six.

And all three were on the floor over the final six minutes of the second quarter as UW extended its lead from 26-24 to 43-30.

“You always believe the players you recruit can someday play for you,” Legerski said. “We’ve had Karla, Quinn and Tereza have to step up more than maybe what we would have thought with Sladjana and Selale not being available.”

Another component to UW’s success has been finding ways to win close games.

The Cowgirls are 3-2 in games decided by nine points or less. On Tuesday, UW trailed by a point with 4 minutes to go after leading by as many as 17 points before outscoring the Pioneers 16-11 down the stretch.

“We gave up a lead against Denver, but we regained our composure,” Legerski said. “I like seeing that. That doesn’t always happen, especially with a young team. What I feel comfortable with is we’ve been competitive.

“You don’t know early on how it’s going to play out, but I like the composure of this group, the competitiveness of this group, and they’re finding ways to win.”

All of what UW has learned through the first month of the season will be tested over the next 30 days.

UW takes on an Idaho team today that was picked to win the Big Sky Conference in the preseason and boasts two of the top guards the Cowgirls will see this season in seniors Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce.

After taking a week off for finals, UW hosts a Jackrabbits team that was picked to win the Summit League and took No. 4 Baylor to the wire in a game played in Las Vegas.

And if that’s not enough, UW opens MW play in early January at preseason favorite Boise State, followed by a home game against No. 2 pick UNLV.

“Who set up this schedule?” Legerski jokingly asked. “Our next four games will test us in a big way.”

Free throws

UW and Idaho will play for the 10th straight season dating back to the 2009-10 season. UW leads 5-4 since the series resumed in 2009 and leads 7-6 overall. However, the visiting team has won four of the last five in the series. … Gomez starts the game 10 points shy of 1,000 in her career and 18 short of tying Shelby Hoffman for No. 24 all-time. Three 3-pointers will also jump Gomez to No. 4 all-time. The senior has 203 on her career.

Scott Nulph is the WyoSports assistant editor. He can be reached at snulph@wyosports.net or 307-755-3324. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottNulph.

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