LAS VEGAS – Devyn Christensen collapsed onto the Orleans Arena floor, crushed beneath the realization that even her WAC tournament-record nine 3-pointers and career-high 37 points weren’t enough to prolong the Aggies’ stay here.
They ran into an Idaho team they’d twice beaten, and the Vandals didn’t want to go home, either.
The result will be memorable for the few who witnessed it. Addie Schivo’s free throws with 3.5 seconds left provided the final, 84-82 margin for the third-seeded Vandals, but that was just the final big offensive play in a game that featured plenty on both sides.
This was March basketball at its finest, USU and Idaho putting on an afternoon display that rivaled anything produced by the four conference tournaments held here in the last two weeks.
The Vandals (16-15), one win away from an NCAA tournament bid, face No. 1 seed Seattle University (20-9) at 12 p.m. Saturday for the tournament championship.
“They wanted it. We wanted it,” said Christensen, who scored 26 of her team’s final 34 points during the last 14 minutes. “They hit shots when they needed to, and we needed just a few more seconds and I think it would have been a different story.”
Instead, the story is this: The Vandals ripped off a 17-2 run to take a 68-59 lead with 5:16 to play after trailing for most of the second half, then withstood a furious comeback led by Christensen and a final Aggies possession that ended without a shot attempt.
Stacey Barr led the effort by scoring 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting. But there were team-wide contributions, a staple of the kind of play that keeps teams alive during this time of year.
There were Ali Forde’s 14 rebounds to propel Idaho to a 47-35 edge on the glass despite the Aggies shooting a higher percentage (43.9) than the Vandals (40). There were 12 points scored by senior Jessica Graham, including the final seven of Idaho’s big run.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted,” said Graham, whose career at Idaho has been marred by three ACL tears and a torn meniscus. “I’m so happy I don’t have any words for it.”
And, of course, there was Schivo, who scored just five points in 19 minutes, pulling down an offensive rebound after Krissy Karr missed a runner in the final seconds – one of just four shots Idaho missed in the final 10 minutes while scoring 33 points – then drawing a foul, stepping to the line with 3.5 seconds left and knocking down both free throws.
“I was pretty comfortable,” Schivo said. “It was a little nerve-wracking, but I hit the first one and knew I was good.”
Idaho coach Jon Newlee called timeout to set his defense. Utah State (18-13) coach Jerry Finkbeiner drew up the “Valparaiso play,” a reference to the full-court inbound play that produced Bryce Drew’s famous winning 3-pointer against Mississippi in the 1998 NCAA tournament.
Newlee wanted Idaho to give a foul – it had only committed five – once the ball was inbounded. But after a Utah State player received a clean pass near the top of the key, she dished to Christensen deep on the left wing.
She took a couple of dribbles, lost control of the ball, and Idaho’s spot in the WAC championship game was clinched.
“I thought, ‘Please don’t foul if she’s going to pick that thing up and shoot it,’ ” Newlee said.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Christensen had risen and nailed a winner. She scored 10 points in a span of 1:40 to cut Idaho’s lead to 81-79. After Idaho’s Alyssa Charlston split a pair of free throws, Franny Vaaulu tied the score with an offensive rebound and 3-point play with 12.1 seconds left.
But the Vandals, losers of seven games decided by six or fewer points, held on for their second tight victory of this tournament.
“It was a game of runs,” Newlee said, “and our run came at the end.”
Who knows? Maybe it still hasn’t ended.