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Vandal women recognize importance of WAC tournament

MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee has said it for years, and he said it again this week. The regular-season champion of each conference should be rewarded with an automatic NCAA tournament bid, and if a different team wins the league tournament, it should get in, too.

As it is, only the winner of each conference’s postseason tourney is automatically slotted into the 64-team event – a setup that Newlee called “ridiculous.”

“I’m sick of seeing eight teams from the ACC or 10 teams from the Big East (get in),” he said. “It needs to be changed.”

However flawed, the current system makes for good theater when upstarts get hot, as Idaho showed last year in the WAC tournament. But it puts serious pressure on the favorites of one-bid leagues, as the Vandals will experience over the next few days at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

After barreling through the WAC with a 15-1 record to earn its first regular-season conference crown since 1984-85, top-seeded Idaho (22-8) will open the WAC tourney today at noon against Chicago State.

If UI wins three games in four days like it did last year, it will make a second straight NCAA appear- ance. But it’s an all-or- nothing undertaking for the Vandals since they don’t have the resume to garner an at-large berth.

“You have to thrive on that pressure,” said Newlee, the WAC’s coach of the year who led UI to its first 20-win season since 2003-04.

As Idaho made a dramatic run to the WAC tournament title last season, one thing that made it even more satisfying for Newlee was knowing he would return almost his entire roster.

The Vandals started three freshmen, a sophomore and junior a year ago. As the core group of players – led by guard Stacey Barr – has matured, their confidence has grown. They showed it in close nonconference losses to Gonzaga and Cal early on, and they rediscovered their groove after a mid-February loss to Cal State Bakersfield.

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