LAS VEGAS – They sang and danced their way into history and out of town, snagging the championship and taking pieces of the net as souvenirs.
Idaho coach Jon Newlee hung the remaining nylon from his neck for all to see, stood atop a ladder and waved a pair of scissors toward the Vandals’ pep band, toward his smiling players. He high-fived anyone he could find.
Newlee and his surprising Vandals, the picture of joy as they celebrated on the Orleans Arena floor, pulled off another upset here on Saturday afternoon, defeating regular-season champion Seattle University 67-64 in the WAC tournament title game to earn the school’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1985.
Idaho (17-15), which entered this tournament with a losing record, will likely land as a No. 16 seed in the NCAAs against one of the nation’s top teams.
But that’s a worry for next week. For now, they’re celebrating the school’s first WAC championship, an entirely positive storyline for an athletic department that had its share of turmoil in the last year.
“To go to the tournament is huge,” said sophomore guard Stacey Barr, who was named tournament MVP after scoring 16 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. “Even just to win this one is unbelievable.”
Believe it. The demons that plagued Idaho in close losses this season must have stayed in Moscow.
“I told these guys on Saturday that our luck was going to change in Vegas,” said Newlee, still wearing that net around his neck during his postgame press conference, and he was right.
The Vandals won their three games here by a combined seven points, including wins over two teams – No. 2 seed Utah State and Seattle – that had swept them in the regular season.
Each victory was decided in the final seconds, although Saturday’s probably shouldn’t have been quite as close. Idaho led 66-57 after Barr made a free throw with 33.7 seconds left, though a spate of turnovers and a couple of clutch baskets by the Redhawks gave Seattle the ball with a chance to tie the game on its final possession.
The Vandals turned over an inbounds pass with 7 seconds left, and Redhawks guard Sylvia Shephard had a decent look at a game-tying 3-point attempt that missed badly.
Daidra Brown grabbed the loose ball, hustled back behind the 3-point line and heaved a desperation shot just before the buzzer sounded, but it wasn’t close. Idaho players sprinted to midcourt to celebrate the school’s first NCAA bid since any of its players were born.
They did it despite committing 18 turnovers and being outrebounded 52-38. The Redhawks led 50-47 after Brown’s jumper with 6:40 to play. But Barr, Ali Forde and Alyssa Charlston sparked an 11-2 run that swung the game permanently in Idaho’s favor.
“Stacey and I were talking about how important it is once we get stops to be smart with the ball,” said Charlston, who scored 15 points and earned a spot on the all-tournament team.
The Vandals held Seattle to 33.8 percent shooting. Idaho made 50 percent of its second-half field-goal attempts, increasing its offensive efficiency after halftime for the second consecutive game.
Barr, who shot 5 for 10 from the field, scored all of her points in the second half.
“I don’t know what it was. Maybe I got a little bit of a break at halftime,” Barr said. “My shots started dropping and I got a couple lucky rolls.”
Newlee doesn’t yet know where Idaho will convene to watch Monday’s selection show. He hadn’t thought that far in advance.
But he knows what the scene might look like at the Corner Club, the famed Moscow bar that displays various Idaho sports memorabilia.
The party there, Newlee said, “might go on for a week or two.”
And, if they ask real nicely, maybe Newlee will donate that net for eternal display along with the rest of the old jerseys and championship tributes.
Or maybe he’ll wear the thing all the way home. He seemed to like the way it fit.
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