The Idaho women’s basketball team will get a chance to realize its dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Idaho, which won the Big Sky Tournament in 2013, 2014 and 2016 can lock up a 2018 invitation to the ‘Big Dance’ with a win in Saturday’s tournament title game.
The Vandals earned that opportunity by escaping with a 102-99 Big Sky Tournament semifinal victory over Portland State Friday afternoon at the Reno Events Center. Idaho will meet Northern Colorado at 1:05 p.m. today in the Big Sky Championship clash. The conference rivals split the season series this winter, each winning on the road.
“We’ve gone to three NCAA tournaments in five years and now we’re back in the (conference) championship game again,” tenth-year Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. “To be back in the championship game is validation of what we do in our program and how we run our program. I’m really proud of this team. Our girls have stepped up and I think it’s fitting that the No. 1 and 2 seeds are playing for the championship. We were the best two teams. I’m convinced of that. Northern Colorado is a great team and hopefully it will be a fantastic ball game.”
Idaho (19-12) never trailed Friday, but only the final horn allowed the Vandals to finally put the Vikings away.
A string of nine unanswered points in a two-minute stretch saw Portland State get to within two, 90-88, following an Ashley Bolston layup with 2:17 remaining in contest. That’s as good as it got for the Vikings.
Idaho’s sharpshooting backcourt came up with a pair of dagger 3-pointers. Coming out of a timeout, Idaho cashed in as shooting guard Taylor Pierce dropped in her ninth and last 3-point bomb of the postseason affair. The Vandals got a defensive stop on the Vikings’ ensuing trip down the floor and then Idaho’s other sharpshooter, first-team all Big Sky guard Mikayla Ferenz, buried a fall-away trey in the corner, pushing the Vandals’ lead back to eight, 96-88, with 1:10 showing on the game clock.
Pierce and Ferenz torched the Portland State defense for 31 and 22 points, respectively, but they got plenty of help from their Vandals’ teammates. Geraldine McCorkell and Isabelle Hadden added 20 and 18 points, respectively, to the winning cause. Idaho finished with 31 assists on 36 field goals.
The Vandals wound up shooting a stellar 36-of-69 from the field (52 percent), including 16-of-31 from 3-point land (52 percent).
Idaho held off Portland State (19-13) by canning all six of its foul shots in the final 40 seconds to ensure its bid into the conference championship clash.
“The number that stands out is the 31 assists. Our goal is 20 or more every game so to get 31 in a Big Sky semifinal is pretty awesome,” Newlee said. “Hadden was a huge key. We ran stuff for her. She has a really good mid-range jump shot. She gave us exactly what we needed. She knocked them down. I’m really proud of her.”
Portland State’s 9-0 run, came on the heels of a 12-3 Vandals’ outburst that saw the UI club forge ahead 90-79 with 4:30 remaining, setting the stage for the late-game drama.
Idaho outscored Portland State 22-21 in the third period as the two teams essentially traded buckets, leaving Idaho on top 71-69 going into the final period.
“We knew what kind of game it would be,” Portland State coach Lynn Kennedy said. “Going into the fourth quarter we knew we needed to get stops. We knew we couldn’t give up a 31-point quarter, but give them credit. They hit shots when they needed to. We knew Idaho was a good team, but I liked how we stayed poised and kept fighting back. We just could not get the lead. They hit shots when they needed to, but still I liked how we played. We didn’t fall apart and that shows the character of this team.”
The first half was a track meet. Idaho held a slim 49-48 edge after two quarters of fast-paced play.
Two days after jumping on Montana State in the opening minutes, Idaho turned the trick again. The Vandals ran out to a 20-7 lead after Pierce dropped a 3-point bomb with 4:16 showing on the first-quarter clock.
Portland State made sure Idaho didn’t run away and hide. The Vikings responded with a 16-6 run of their own, in a span of less than three minutes, cutting the UI lead to 26-23 with 1:24 still left in the initial period. Allison Kirby knocked down a baseline jumper for Idaho to conclude the first quarter scoring. The Vandals led 30-23 after the first 10 minutes.
A 3-pointer by Ferenz left Idaho still up by eight, 43-35 with 3:33 remaining before the intermission. Portland State chipped away again, outscoring their foes from Moscow 13-6 into the break to account for the one-point halftime margin.
Portland State saw six players hit for double digits in the scoring column, led by Bolston’s 26 points. The Vikings also shot extremely well from the floor — 35-70 overall and 12-18 from three — but Idaho’s prowess from 3-point land proved to be the difference in the game.