LAS VEGAS – The new shirts and hats worn by the Idaho women’s basketball team. The white “WAC Tournament Champions” sign brought into the postgame interview room by tournament MVP Stacey Barr. The freshly cut net worn around coach Jon Newlee’s neck.
All that celebratory white after a 75-67 victory contrasted starkly with the mournful black strips worn on the gray Vandals jerseys to honor point guard Connie Ballestero’s uncle, Rick, who died Friday morning after having dinner with members of the team the night before.
Ballestero’s coach told her she didn’t need to play in Saturday’s championship. She played all 40 minutes, recording four assists and committing zero turnovers.
Her steady ball-handling and management of the Vandals’ offense allowed the team to survive the constant full-court pressure of a Seattle University team that desperately wanted to win the rematch last year’s Western Athletic Conference tournament championship.
“She did a fantastic job of focusing in on the basketball game and we couldn’t be prouder of her, man,” Newlee said. “To go out and fight and play like she did in these kinds of emotional conditions. It’s unbelievable to me and our prayers and thoughts are with the Ballestero family.”
The game itself would have been emotionally charged in any circumstances. Idaho punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament last season at the Redhawks’ expense after getting swept in the regular season. and SU (15-16) was undoubtedly eager to exact its revenge after suffering two losses to the Vandals (25-8) this season.
The game was a cakewalk for the Vandals early. Ballestero got the scoring started with a 3-pointer and the lead blossomed to 8-0, then 18-4.
But UI’s posts began to get into foul trouble. Ali Forde picked up her second with 9:47 left in the half and Maren Austgulen got her third a few minutes later.
Seattle suddenly had a clear path to the basket and began to attack. The Redhawks went on a 16-6 run without making a single shot from behind the arc.
“I knew they weren’t going away. They’re a great team,” Newlee said. “(Coach) Joan (Bonvicini) does a great job with them and I knew we were going to be in for a battle today. Every game we play with them is really a battle, so I wasn’t surprised when they made their run and caught us.”
Idaho’s lead continued to dwindle and the Redhawks tied the game briefly before Charlston hit a pair of free throws to give the Vandals a 29-27 halftime lead.
Barr, winner of her second consecutive WAC tournament MVP trophy, had 19 of her game-high 28 points in the second half. After going 1 of 6 on 3-pointers in the first half, she began to attack the rim, not taking a second-half 3 but going 9 of 10 from the free-throw line and making all five field-goal attempts.
“She’s just been huge,” Newlee said. “She stayed for the first time this summer here instead of going home to Australia and worked on her game and you can see the huge improvement even from last year. She’s just a heck of a basketball player, man, she just plays hard every minute and you can’t coach that. A kid’s got to have it in them.”
The win means that Idaho will play in the NCAA tournament again. Last year the team was a 16 seed and lost to No. 1 seed Connecticut 105-37. When the NCAA announces this year’s seeds at 3:45 p.m. Monday, the Vandals will likely have a better seed thanks to their conference record and close early season losses at No. 25 Gonzaga and No. 20 California.
But it likely won’t be good enough to satisfy the Vandals coach.
“I feel we deserve between a 10 and a 12 seed. That’s my feeling on it. We get punished for being in the league we’re in by these guys and they’re going to put the eighth-place seed from the ACC in, you know the sixth seed or something and that drives me crazy,” Newlee said. “We feel like we should be respected more for what we’ve done, we beat the teams in front of us. We took care of this league.”