At first glance, a mid-December trip to Cancun seemed the perfect opportunity for the Idaho women’s basketball team to chill out.
Instead, the Vandals warmed to the idea of disproving their doubters, including the Big Sky Conference coaches who picked them to finish eighth in the Big Sky Conference.
“We used that as motivation,” said senior Christina Salvatore, who led the Vandals in a narrow loss against Duke and wins over Texas State and Iowa State.
Two months later, the doubters are looking up the standings at Idaho, which is 18-7 overall and 10-3 in the Big Sky. Currently in third place, the Vandals are hoping for a strong finish heading into the conference tournament that begins on March 7.
“We knew we had the talent,” Salvatore said. “(In 2014-15) we had a rough year and we underperformed – this year we were excited to get after it.”
So was Salvatore, a 5-foot-11 guard from Anaheim, California, who’s been making a big mark since she arrived in Moscow with fellow Southern California native Connie Ballestero in 2012. So far she’s played in 121 games, starting all but six.
As a freshman, Salvatore broke Idaho’s single-season 3-point record by making 87, and finished fourth in the Western Athletic Conference with 54 made 3-pointers.
Salvatore hit 87 3-pointers as a sophomore. Last season, she started all 29 games, averaging 9.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.
This year, the Vandals are counting on Salvatore for poise as well as points, and she hasn’t let them down.
“I would say I mostly lead by example, but I’m plenty loud and bring a lot of energy,” said Salvatore, who’s averaging 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds this season. At the same time, she’s passing the baton to a new group, including freshmen guards Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce.
“I see a lot of myself in them – coming in as a freshman is always tough,” Salvatore said.
Last weekend, she brought a little of everything to the court at North Dakota. The Vandals were coming off an overtime loss at Northern Colorado and locked in a tight battle with the Fighting Hawks.
Salvatore was the difference-maker, scoring a game-high 20 points to move into 10th place on Idaho’s all-time scoring list. She also had four assists and four steals as the Vandals won 65-59 to stay in third place heading into this week’s road trip to Portland State and Sacramento State.
Payback for GU?
For the Gonzaga players and coaches, Thursday’s game at Saint Mary’s offers more than just a chance at some payback.
More than anything, the Bulldogs want to correct the mistakes that led to a stinging 69-68 loss to the Gaels at the McCarthey Center on Jan. 21.
To accomplish that, coach Lisa Fortier said, the Bulldogs need to improving their defense and “rebound the heck out of the ball.” One of the top rebounding teams in the West Coast Conference, GU was nonetheless beaten on the boards in the first meeting.
Offensively, Fortier said GU needs to “look at our post players in different ways, at making those entry passes and our spacing.”
At stake is a higher seed in the WCC tournament, which begins in two weeks. The Bulldogs’ confidence got a boost with three home wins against Loyola, Pepperdine and Portland, in which they shot 46 percent from the field, held opponents to 35 percent and won the rebounding battle by an average of 40 to 28.
Senior center Shelby Cheslek hopes that will translate into a little payback.
“I think we’re all just ready to get to go to their house and do what they did to us,” Cheslek said.
Hodgins history at EWU
Eastern Washington guard Hayley Hodgins is on the verge of becoming the school’s leading career scorer.
After scoring 37 points in road games at North Dakota and Northern Colorado, the senior from Pasco has 1,700 career points, just 33 short of the career record set by Brenda Southern from 1983-87.
Based on her average of 21 points a game, Hodgins is expected to break the record in Saturday’s home game against Portland State.
Meanwhile the Eagles fell into second place after Thursday’s 72-69 loss at North Dakota. Eastern is 17-8 overall 11-2 in the Big Sky – one game behind Montana State – with five games left.
The Eagles had to scrap for a 74-67 win at UNC.
“We didn’t go a great job defensively in the first half,” coach Wendy Schuller said. “We made a few adjustments at halftime, and I thought the team picked up those adjustments well.”
Rough stretch for Cougars
Mired in an eight-game losing streak, Washington State faces an uphill climb this weekend.
The Cougars (12-13 overall and 3-11 in the Pac-12) are at co-leader Arizona State on Friday, then travel to Arizona on Sunday.
WSU is coming off a near-miss weekend in Los Angeles. The Cougars led 14th-ranked UCLA late in the third quarter, but were undone by 27 turnovers in a 73-61 defeat.
On Sunday, they led USC by two late in the game and were tied in final seconds, but gave up two late free throws to fall 64-62.
“I’m really proud of our team,” WSU coach June Daugherty said. “I thought our front line rose to the occasion. They played very well, especially in the second half.”
Valley earns POW honors
Montana’s Kayleigh Valley was named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after scoring 58 points in two games last weeked.
Valley, a junior from University High School, led the Griz to a pair of wins at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
Valley scored a career-high 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting and added nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks in Montana’s 81-50 victory at Southern Utah on Thursday. With her final basket of the game, Valley became the 32nd player in Lady Griz history to reach 1,000 career points.
In Saturday’s 61-57 win at Northern Arizona, Valley scored 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
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