Wyoming Loses First-Round Matchup vs Pitt

The Cowgirls fell a few shots shy of a first-round upset on Saturday, but they found few reasons to hang their heads after the game…

When Justyna Podziemska's fifth 3-pointer dropped through the net with just more than four minutes on the clock, Wyoming had a one-point lead, a friendly crowd on its side and a chance to make history yet again.

Mallorie Winn had other ideas.

Pittsburgh's sixth-year senior knocked in a 3-pointer of her own with 2:28 left to play and added four more points at the free throw line in the final minute to help the Panthers pull out a 63-58 victory over Wyoming in the first round of the women's NCAA tournament in Albuquerque on Saturday.

"They're a very talented team," Wyoming's Hanna Zavecz said of Pittsburgh. "You could tell they've been in situations like that before. They made a big play, and we couldn't respond."

The Cowgirls earned a top-25 ranking for the first time in school history during the 2007-08 campaign, climbing to as high as No. 16 in the polls midway through conference play. They managed to string together a school-record 12 straight wins at one point in the season—tied for the most in the country—and when they earned an at-large bid and an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament on Monday, they became the first Wyoming women's basketball team to ever make it to the Big Dance.

They also had the good fortune of playing their first-round matchup in the Pit, a venue that gave the Cowgirls the added support of several thousand New Mexico fans.

But unlike a year ago when the Cowgirls reeled off six consecutive victories en route to a WNIT Championship, the postseason wasn't kind to Wyoming in 2008.

The loss to Pitt came just eight days after San Diego State ousted Wyoming from the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament, and the Cowgirls watched a historic season end on a two-game losing streak.

Not that they were too upset with the way things turned out.

"This is what we wanted to do," said Zavecz, who earned MWC Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. "We wanted to come out and prove that we could play with these teams, and I think that's what we did. We played very confidently and like we had nothing to lose.

"I think our team's amazing, and we showed that tonight."

The No. 6 seeded Panthers (23-10 overall) got 13 first-half points from Sophronia Sallard, who hit her first six shots from the field, but Wyoming (24-7) made four 3-pointers and led by as much as five points in the period.

"We were really confident as a team, and we had nothing to lose tonight," Podziemska said. "We talked before the game about our confidence and how we needed to shoot like we had nothing to lose."

A 9-2 run by Pitt helped tie the score at 28 at halftime, and star center Marcedes Walker scored five points in the first five minutes of the second half to give the Panthers a 37-32 advantage, their biggest lead to that point.

Podziemska scored eight of the next 12 Wyoming points, including back-to-back 3-pointers, to give the Cowgirls a one-point lead, 44-43, with 11:02 to play, but Pitt's leading scorer, Shavonte Zellous, answered by knocking in four straight free throws and hitting two more field goals to help the Panthers regain a 53-51 advantage. That set up Podziemska's fifth and final three, a shot that gave Wyoming a brief 54-53 lead before Pitt closed out the game on a 10-4 run to seal the win.

"Every play counts in those last four minutes, and they made more plays than we did," said Podziemska, who finished with a game-high 23 points.

Zavecz added 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks for the Cowgirls, but Wyoming struggled to find an answer for Zellous and Walker, who combined to score 24 of the Panthers' 35 points in the second half.

The game featured 12 ties and 10 lead changes, with neither team able to take control until Winn's 3-pointer sparked the final Pitt run.

"We had a chance in the last minute of the ballgame," Wyoming coach Joe Legerski said. "Sometimes you make shots, and sometimes you don't.…We had a couple good looks at the basket, (but) the ball didn't go down.

"But I was very proud of the way the team stepped up tonight. I thought it was a heck of a basketball game."

While 3-pointers kept Wyoming in the game early on, the Cowgirls finished a disappointing 29.6 percent from beyond the arc. Senior Jodi Bolerjack, a 41-percent shooter from long range on the year, went just 2-of-8 in the game, including missing a wide-open look in the final minute.

"That was a big miss," Legerski said. "We miss an open 3, a big shot. We could have closed it to a 1-point game with a minute to go, then Pitt stepped to the line and made free throws. That's how you close it out."

Pitt will play No. 3 seeded Baylor in the second round of the tournament on Monday.

And while the Cowgirls will be heading back to Laramie a bit sooner than they would have liked, they didn't find many reasons to hang their heads about their tournament appearance.

"Even though we didn't win tonight, I think we showed everybody that we deserved to come to the tournament and we can play with the teams from the East," Podziemska said. "Even though it's not as good as it could be…I'm still happy with the way we played tonight and the way we responded to the challenge of the NCAA tournament."

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