RENO, Nevada – With a big game on the line in the fourth quarter, Idaho women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee went with his hot hand.
Which turned out to be almost everyone.
Trailing Eastern Washington by one point going into the fourth quarter, the Vandals hit nine of their last 12 shots in a runaway 86-71 win in a Big Sky Conference semifinal game Friday afternoon.
“We all had that mindset,” Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. “We hit a couple of 3s, got people moving and we were sharing the basketball really well.”
The reward is a spot in Saturday’s title game against upstart Idaho State, which beat North Dakota 69-54 in the other semifinal at the Reno Events Center. A win would send the third-seeded Vandals (23-9) in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years, something Christina Salvatore and the other Vandals seniors can appreciate.
After the Vandals won Western Athletic Conference tournament titles in 2013 and 2014, Salvatore said, “I didn’t really know what it was like not to go. Last year when we struggled it just kind of motivated us more, specifically our senior class.”
Apparently, the freshmen are fast learners. Freshman Mikayla Ferenz had a team-high 20 points while classmate Taylor Pierce sparked the Vandals with big shots in a 31-point fourth quarter.
Pierce opened the quarter with a 3-pointer that gave Idaho the lead – for good, as it turned out. Two minutes later, Ali Forde added a pair of layups to go along with her game-high 19 assists.
That made it an eight-point game. Pierce added two more 3s to give Idaho a 72-62 lead with 4:57 left.
Eastern stayed cold from the floor. After shooting 44 percent in the first half, the Eagles were 7 for 32 in the second.
“We just missed buckets that we normally make,” said Eastern coach Wendy Schuller, whose team swept Idaho in two regular-season meetings but lost in the semifinals for the second year in a row.
“It was frustrating, obviously. We got good shots and got good lucks, but we just couldn’t knock them down.”
Last year, a 20-win Eastern team earned an invitation to the Women’s NIT. This year’s team (20-12) has the same credentials.
“I think it would be deserving for this team,” Schuller said. “If you look at our performance in conference play, we finished second and won a lot of Big Sky games.
“But we also challenged ourselves in the nonconference and played some very tough opponents. This is a team that earned an opportunity to play in the NIT. We hope they’ll consider us.”
Early in the game, the Eagles looked to breeze past Idaho. Taking advantage of several turnovers, Eastern went on an 11-0 run sparked by Hayley Hodgins. In a span of 39 seconds, she recorded a block, a rebound and a pair of 3-pointers and a steal. Hodgins finished with a game-high 22 points.
“Our first quarter started a little rocky,” Newlee said. “From a defensive standpoint, they were getting some pretty good looks.”
The Eagles were up 17-8 at that point, but Idaho took a brief 27-26 lead on a 3-pointer by Karlee Wilson.
Eastern led 51-45 at halftime on a buzzer-beating three by Delaney Hodgins.
Idaho State 69, North Dakota 54: Senior guard Apiphany Woods scored 15 points and junior guard Freya Newton added 14 as the ninth-seeded Bengals (18-14) upset the fourth-seeded Fighting Hawks (18-13) to advance to the title game.
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