Marta Gomez came to the University of Wyoming women’s basketball program as a shooter who had a big adjustment picking up coach Joe Legerski’s defensive mentality.
Bailee Cotton arrived at UW already skilled at the defensive end of the floor, but needing development on offense.
Clara Tapia showed up with UW in major need of a point guard.
The three, along with fellow seniors Sladjana Rakovic, Rachelle Tucker and Tijana Race, will play their final regular-season home game as Cowgirls at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Arena-Auditorium against San Jose State.
And Gomez, Cotton and Tapia will do so leaving their names all over the UW record books and their imprint firmly in Cowgirls basketball history.
Gomez announced herself to the program and Cowgirls fans in the third game of her UW career by hitting eight 3-pointers against Cal State Fullerton. The eight treys tied the school record that still stands as the most 3-pointers made by a Cowgirl in a single game.
Everybody knew Gomez could shoot the ball.
But Legerski demands more of an all-around game with his players. And, as the 16-year Cowgirls coach says, if you don’t play defense, you don’t get on the floor.
It’s that aspect of the game that Gomez has worked the hardest on over her four years to become a key cog in the Cowgirls’ defensive game plan. Gomez also expanded her offense to add a mid-range game to her repertoire while always being one of the top 3-point shooters in the Mountain West, and this year in the nation.
“I came here being a shooter and I’m going to leave being an all-around player who can post up and take a player to the block and still shoot threes,” Gomez said. “And I’ve actually learned how to play defense and how to play with my team.
“That’s the thing that I’m most proud of, how much I’ve improved since my freshman year and how many life lessons I’ve learned in the four years.”
Gomez made two 3-pointers Saturday at Air Force to tie Kayla Woodward for No. 2 all-time on the list with 242.
She won’t catch Kaitlyn Mileto’s record of 285, but Gomez’s 43.4 percent shooting percentage on 3-pointers is five percentage points better than Mileto and ranks second all-time at UW to Krista Treide’s record 45.0 percent. But Treide only shot 209 treys in her entire career.
This year, Gomez is putting up MW Most Valuable Player numbers.
Gomez is leads the Cowgirls in scoring at 15.9 points a game, is second in rebounds at 4.8, third in steals with 24 all the while leading the nation in 3-point shooting at 48.4 percent.
Gomez also went through a process of starting every game her freshman season before coming off the bench during her sophomore and junior years. Gomez was the MW Sixth Player of the Year both those seasons.
“It’s what you, as a coach, hope happens for every player,” Legerski said. “They improve from their freshman year to their senior year and you see the growth in them. We always knew Marta could shoot the basketball, but early in her career she was basically known as a 3-point shooter. Now she’s become a tremendous mid-range shooter, specifically off the move.”
Gomez has also improved in being a team leader.
Wednesday, following a heartbreaking home loss to Fresno State, the Valles, Spain, native gave an impassioned speech to the UW fans to come out for Senior Night and that the Cowgirls weren’t going to let the loss finish them.
Gomez said a year ago she would have probably just thanked the fans for coming out to the game.
“I wanted to let my teammates and my coaches and the fans know that I’m not going to give up and keep playing my best and get as many wins as we can at the end,” she said. “I just wanted everybody to know that we’re still going to keep playing together.
“I feel like I’m an important piece for the program and people look up to me to do things and say things and I’m trying to do as much as I can for the program.”
Cotton came to UW a year before Gomez, but suffered season-ending knee injuries in each of her first two seasons.
The Denver native was granted a medical redshirt for the first injury.
Not many players fully come back from one major knee injury, let alone two.
For Cotton, it was just part of what she does and who she is.
“I just feel like I’m always going to be coming back. It’s a little bit of a weird feeling and I’m not sure how I’m going to feel on the day because right now I’m like, ‘this can’t be right,’” she said with a laugh. “It will probably be a little sadness but a little excitement and a little bit of urgency, too.”
Cotton will play in her 108th game Monday and has started all but one of those games.
She recently passed the 600-rebound mark and has 664, good for 15th all-time at UW.
Cotton has also improved on the offensive end of the floor while being one of the team’s top defensive players throughout her career. Cotton was named to the All-MW Defensive Team last season.
Cotton averaged 5.9 points as a sophomore 8.2 as a junior and 12.1 this season.
“Defense has always been there for me,” Cotton said. “It’s literally my backbone of how I play and what I hang my hat on every game. But being able to evolve my game and being one of the players that can be counted on to score, that’s a huge thing as well.”
Cotton watched last season as the recruiting class she came to UW with all graduated. Just the fact that Cotton gets to celebrate Senior Night after two major injuries is a testament to her drive and toughness.
“Sometimes fifth-year seniors see their recruiting class leave and now it’s up to them to fit in to the rest of the team,” Legerski said. “She’s our most vocal leader and she’s made the most of this final season.
“Yet, to still have the drive to come back and play the way she has, has been remarkable.”
Tapia was still looking for a Division I college to play for in the summer of 2016 when the Cowgirls came calling.
The Barcelona, Spain, product said yes to Legerski and has been a starter ever since.
Tapia averaged 144 assists during her first two seasons with basically no backup at the point guard spot. Her assist numbers are down a little bit this season with help at the point from freshman Karla Erjavec, but she also ranks in the top 30 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Clara stepped in to fill a void when Marquelle Dent graduated and really stepped up for us,” Legerski said. “She was as responsible as anybody for our success. She is someone who goes 100 percent each and every night out.”
Like Gomez, Tapia’s career started with a bang by scoring her career high of 18 points in her first game as Cowgirl.
She’s had at least one assist in 89 of her 90 career games while guarding the opposition’s point guard on a nightly basis.
But maybe the biggest number for Tapia – and Gomez and Cotton as well – is her contribution to the win column.
“As the point guard, she’s going to walk out of here averaging at least 20 wins in each of her seasons,” Legerski said. “ She brings a toughness to what we want to do. That’s something that over the years, we’ve been able to count the number of players in that category in a very few number.”
Tucker and Raca came to UW along with Gomez and have contributed to the team’s success at various times. Rakovic transferred to UW after two seasons and Western Nebraska College and has been a top player off the bench in each of her two years with the Cowgirls.
“Each and every one has had an opportunity to step on the floor and at different points and time to succeed,” Legerski said. “It’s a plus to them that they’ve stayed here and will graduate from this program and have been a big part of the success we’ve had the last three years.”
And not just on the court.
UW has been one of the MW’s top programs academically as well during their time in Laramie
The group has also formed a bond and a leadership dynamic that the Cowgirls haven’t always had in the past.
“We are really close and like each other and playing with each other,” Gomez said. “ I think about how I’ve been able to see Bailee get back and get better with her injuries and become a huge player for us. I’m happy to get the chance to experience that with her and be by her side.”