If a team doubts its ability to come back from a late-game deficit, Chris Carlson has an inspirational story to tell them.
That’s because at Christianson Gym, with about 1,000 people watching the Region 18 tournament championship game, his North Idaho women’s basketball team accomplished a most improbable feat Saturday night.
After falling behind by 18 points with 11 minutes left, the Cardinals won.
And at least for now, they are calling it the greatest moment of their careers.
Bianca Cheever’s 3-pointer with 43.7 seconds left capped the comeback for North Idaho, which upended the College of Southern Idaho 66-61 and advanced to the NJCAA national tournament for the first time since 1997.
“Shots just started snowballing,” said Carlson, whose team lost to CSI in last year’s tournament title game. “It was an amazing comeback.”
Fans erupted in cheers when Cheever’s 3-pointer swooshed through the net to give North Idaho a 63-61 lead. The Golden Eagles (26-5) failed to covert on their final two offensive possessions, and free throws by Lindsey Stark and Cheever iced the game for the Cardinals (25-7), who ended the game on a 30-7 run.
Ten minutes earlier, top-seeded Southern Idaho was ahead 54-36. Soana Lucet and conference MVP Shauneice Samms, who finished with 20 and 12 points, respectively, were hitting layups with ease. The Cardinals’ post players were running out of allotted fouls.
But Carlson called a timeout to calm his players, the Cardinals began to methodically chip away.
Cheever hit a 3-pointer at 10:52, cutting the deficit to 15. Two minutes later, with the score 56-42, Natalie Nichols drained a 3-pointer and stole the ball from Martina Holloway on the next possession. Nichols finished her ensuing layup, whittling CSI’s lead down to 56-47.
“There was a point where you could tell we were kind of defeated,” said tournament MVP Lindsay Wimett, who led the Cardinals with 20 points. “But Natalie had that 3 and that steal, and Holloway just stood there.
“When that happened, we thought, ‘Yeah, this is our shot.’ And we just kept rolling with it.”
Nichols fouled out on the next possession. She said afterward that as she sat down on the bench and buried her face in her hands, “I thought it was over.”
But Stark hit a 3-pointer to make it 56-50 at 7:44, and North Idaho’s defense, porous early, galvanized from then on. The rest of the way, CSI sank just two field goals.
“We knew what we had to do,” Cheever said. “We had to shut down their posts, come out and play hard defense.”
A day after spraining her ankle in a semifinal victory over Snow College, Cheever finished with 17 points – 11 of them after halftime – to go with eight rebounds and two blocks.
Kia Gibson, saddled with three fouls for the first 18 minutes of the second half, added 11 points and two more of North Idaho’s nine blocks.
Cheever earned a spot on the tournament first team and Wimett landed on the second team. Nichols was honorable mention.
The Cardinals will prepare for the national junior college tournament, which starts March 17 in Salina, Kan.
“This is the best moment of our careers,” Wimett said after cutting down a strand of the basket. … “So far. So far.”
Tournament MVP DJ Wright and Nate Bendall combined for 58 points to lead Salt Lake to an 88-78 win over Eastern Utah.
SLCC will play the Region 1 champion Tuesday in Phoenix to decide a berth in the NJCAA tournament, which begins March 17 in Hutchison, Kan.
•NIC’s Renado Parker was named the region’s regular-season MVP. Teammate Melvin Jones made the first team.