Bianca Cheever couldn’t have asked for a better detour from NCAA Division I basketball this season.
The Australian native landed in Pocatello two years ago to play at Idaho State University. After a redshirt season, Cheever saw considerable minutes as a part-time starter last year.
But her coach, Jon Newlee, decided to leave ISU for a rebuilding project at Idaho. Cheever didn’t want to stay in Pocatello. In fact, Newlee’s replacement wasn’t hired until after she had returned for the summer to her home in Geelong, Australia.
So she took it upon herself to find another school. To play right away, she’d have to transfer to a non-Division I school or a junior college. She sent e-mails to junior college coaches at Sheridan, Wyo., Twin Falls and Coeur d’Alene.
North Idaho College coach Chris Carlson is glad he didn’t ignore Cheever’s initial inquiry.
“She had been starting at Idaho State, so I jumped all over her e-mail,” Carlson said. “I was an assistant coach at Eastern Washington while Jon (Newlee) was at Idaho State. He had back-to-back Big Sky titles. If he’s got a kid starting for him and I’ve got an opportunity to get her here – well, it’s not like I had to think twice about it.”
Carlson and Cheever began talking. She knew about NIC through a former ISU teammate and an Aussie friend at another school. She ended up choosing NIC over Sheridan and College of Southern Idaho.
Cheever played a big role last Saturday in NIC’s improbable 66-61 comeback win over CSI in the Region 18 championship game. The win earned the Cardinals (25-7) a berth in the NJCAA tournament, which begins Tuesday at Salina, Kan. It’s the first trip to nationals by NIC since 1997.
The biggest challenge the 5-foot-8 Cheever faced when she arrived at NIC was finding a place on a team that consisted of 10 sophomores.
“The chemistry thing is something you deal with a lot and you hope it doesn’t become too big of an issue,” Carlson said. “On the flip side, we knew we had a chance to be a good team.”
The chemistry concern never became an issue. Cheever is shy with an unassuming personality so she had no problem blending in with her new teammates.
“I just tried to fit in,” she said.
Spreading playing time around never became an issue either since the Cardinals lost two starters to a season-ending injury and eligibility.
Cheever played shooting guard and wing at ISU. At NIC, Carlson needed a point guard. Cheever more than filled the bill. She averages 10.8 points, second best on the team, a team-leading 7.1 rebounds, 3.71 assists and 2.55 steals. She also led the Scenic West Athletic Conference in 3-point shooting percentage (.413).
“She’s had quite the impact,” Carlson said. “When you have a point guard leading you in rebounding, you’ve got something special there.”
She was named to the SWAC first team.
NIC trailed CSI by 18 points with 11 minutes remaining. During the Cards’ comeback, Cheever hit a key 3-pointer that gave NIC the lead with 40 seconds to go and took a charge on the next possession, giving her team possession.
She did it while playing injured. In a semifinal win the night before against Snow College, Cheever hurt her foot with about 5 minutes remaining.
“We’ve seen her do it before, but she’s always gotten right back up,” Carlson said. “This time she stayed down.”
Cheever finally was helped up. She was holding her knee, but it was her foot that was injured. In fact, it was the top of her right foot.
“She sprained a ligament on top of her foot. I didn’t know you had ligaments on top of your feet,” Carlson said. “We’re in the locker room after the game and she’s on crutches and can’t put any weight on her foot. She’s telling her team that she’s playing (in the championship game).”
The Cards had a shootaround the next morning. Cheever got her foot taped and started warming up. Five minutes later, you wouldn’t have known she was hurt.
“She’s going full tilt cutting on it and everything,” Carlson said. “If she had pain she wasn’t going to tell anybody.”
After Cheever arrived at NIC last fall, Newlee started recruiting her a second time. She signed during the early period in November.
“She’s definitely a potential starter for us next year,” Newlee said. “She will give us lots of energy. She can shoot the 3 and that’s something we need. We need shooters in our program. By playing point at NIC she’s been able to work on her ball-handling and passing. She does a great job of getting out and defending. That will be a welcome addition as well.”
NIC is seeded eighth in the NJCAA tournament and opens against No. 9 Trinity Valley Community College (25-7) out of Athens, Texas, Tuesday at 6:15 PST. It’s the 14th national appearance by Trinity Valley and second straight.
Carlson said Trinity Valley is an athletic team that is quick and has a lot of size.
“I can’t see any teams (at nationals) being much stronger than CSI and we beat them twice,” Carlson said. “We just need to take care of the ball and rebound. We believe after that comeback (against CSI).”
“It’s been a dream come true for me at NIC,” Cheever said. “Not a lot of people get an opportunity to go to nationals. It just came down to teamwork and believing we could do it. When you start playing tough defense like we did and start making some shots, it sort of became contagious. We have a tough matchup (in the first game), but I think we’ve got it in us to play well. I expect to do well.”