At the beginning of the season, the CSU womenâ€™s basketball team was projected to finish third in the Mountain West.
A month ago today, the Rams held a 3-9 record and looked unlikely to meet those expectations.
Since then, CSU has improved its record to 8-12, and most importantly, has gone 4-1 in the MW, putting the Rams just one game behind conference-leading San Diego State.
The first half of the season featured close losses (an overtime loss to Arizona State and a three-point loss to Denver) as well as blowout losses (losing by 18 points or more three times), leaving many Rams shocked at the teamâ€™s early struggles.
â€œI didnâ€™t expect to have that few wins (in non-conference play),â€ senior Kim Mestdagh said. â€œI thought we would win more.â€
Many of the Ramsâ€™ early struggles came at the hand of a difficult non-conference schedule, which featured four teams that made the 2011 NCAA Womenâ€™s Championships.
The schedule was structured to challenge the Rams and to prepare them for the most important portion of their schedule: conference games.
â€œI donâ€™t regret the way we scheduled,â€ CSU coach Kristen Holt said. â€œI think it has really prepared us, and our kids didnâ€™t lose their confidence.â€
During their early struggles, the Rams forged a bond with one another that they believe has served them well in the start of conference play.
â€œIt challenged us a lot,â€ forward Sam Martin said of the schedule. â€œI think we just got so much better from that. And we came together, and we got so much better as a team, as players â€” and we grew up a lot.â€
The Rams were forced to shuffle through a few starting lineups early on due to in-season injuries to starter Martin, point guard Mandy Makeever and forward Kelly Hartig. Makeever re-aggravated a shoulder injury in a loss to Toledo in early December and will be out the rest of the season.
Hartig and Martin have battled knee injuries all year, while guard Amber Makeever will miss the entire season with a hip injury.
CSU has found recent stability in its starting lineup though, sticking with the same starting five during the last five games, which has translated to four wins and only one loss.
With consistency in the lineup, the Rams improved upon one of the areas they have struggled with all year: turnovers.
Replacing Mandy Makeever at point guard has been true freshman LaDeyah Forte, who has averaged only 3.3 turnovers per game on the year, and a 1.3 turnover to assist ratio â€” the third best in the MW.
With Forte running the offense, the Rams have gotten about seven extra possessions in the last three contests as a team, averaging 14.6 turnovers per game, down from 21.8 in their previous 17.
According to Forte, getting better at protecting the ball has come with better team chemistry on the court.
â€œYes, I think thatâ€™s probably whatâ€™s helping us with, you know, keeping our turnovers down,â€ she said.
So at the end of January, the Rams now have the opportunity to bounce back from their tumultuous start to the year and win the MW, a feat they havenâ€™t accomplished since 2002.
â€œI think everyone still believes we can do it,â€ Martin said. â€œAnd thatâ€™s what is the biggest thing on our team is that everyone has the same goals, everyone has the same beliefs, and everyone has faith that we can do it.â€
Womenâ€™s Basketball Beat Reporter Andrew Schaller can be reached at email@example.com.
Started: 3-10, 0-0 MW
Since: 5-2, 4-1 MW
Amber Makeever (hip)
Mandy Makeever (shoulder)
Sam Martin (knee)
Kelly Hartig (knee)