In the waning weeks of their University of Idaho careers, Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce still have things to accomplish.
Ferenz is 12 points from matching the Big Sky Conference’s all-time scoring record of 2,296, set by former Idaho State star Natalie Doma.
One more good game should get her there. The Vandals face Portland State on Thursday and Sacramento State on Saturday – both on the road –before finishing the regular season at home with Weber State and Idaho State.
Pierce can add to her 108 3-pointers that lead the country this season and 432 career 3s that rank third all time among in the NCAA.
Last week, the two got an important piece of their personal history straight, learning the true source of one of the most euphonious college basketball nicknames. Following a quick glance of affirmation between them in UI coach Jon Newlee’s office, Ferenz recounted how a former practice player on the men’s team saw them on campus late in their freshmen season and tagged them with the title.
“That was me,” Newlee corrected. “I told him. … It hit me in Reno when you guys were sophomores.”
The Vandals were awaiting a bus to take them to a Big Sky Tournament practice. Newlee was musing about the amount of offense he borrowed from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and their incomparable Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got my own Splash Sisters,’ ” Newlee said.
Pierce and Ferenz entered Vandals lore with a nickname as memorable as the Twin Marys – Mary Westerwelle and All-American Mary Raese – who led Idaho to a record 28-2 mark and NCAA Tournament appearance in 1985 and a Women’s National Invitational Tournament title the following season.
The Splash Sisters have lived up to the billing. As freshmen, Ferenz and Pierce were key members of an Idaho team that won the Big Sky championship against Idaho State and played against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament. Ferenz was the league tournament MVP.
As sophomores, they reached the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational. Pierce and Ferenz each scored 20 in an 86-80 loss to Rice.
Last season, Idaho reached the Big Sky championship game again. Following a loss to Northern Colorado, the Vandals met UC Davis in the first round of the Women’s NIT, falling 82-62. Pierce led the way with 19 points. Ferenz scored 18 and set Idaho’s single-season scoring record with 742 points.
For their final go-round, Ferenz and Pierce seek another Big Sky Conference championship and trip to the NCAA.
“We really want to do that again,” Ferenz said.
“We’ve played in all three tournaments,” Pierce said. “The NCAA is by far the best.”
Newlee, like many basketball coaches, has recruited great players. Bringing two to campus in the same class is far less common. Newlee will also be eternally grateful Ferenz and Pierce became consummate teammates and best friends.
“I’ve never had two great players who get along so well and who are so unselfish with each other on the floor,” he said.
“I’m more than willing to give up a good look for a great look for her,” Ferenz said. “I know I’m going to get an assist.”
The Splash Sisters stand in contrast to another pair Newlee coached at Idaho State who dominated the Big Sky nearly 15 years ago. Doma, whose record Ferenz is chasing, and Andrea Lightfoot are in ISU’s Hall of Fame.
“Those two were Shaq and Kobe,” Newlee said, likening them to the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship-winning but mismatched superstars.
“I was reading Phil Jackson books to try to learn how I could get those two together,” he added. “I never had to do that with (Ferenz and Pierce).”
Newlee first noticed Ferenz, from Walla Walla, and Pierce, from Carlsbad, California, playing on summer teams early in high school. The two became aware of each other going into their senior year when they were paired on a team at a Gonzaga summer camp.
“We had no idea each of us had been offered by Idaho,” Pierce said. “A week later, we committed. We both shot it really well that week. I thought, ‘This is going to be fun.’ ”
At Idaho, they quickly found Ferenz, the scorer, and Pierce, the pure shooter, had complementary games. Guarding each other in practice made them both better, Ferenz said.
They have celebrated triumphs and buoyed each other through low moments. Most recently among the latter, Pierce scored 19 points but turned over the ball in the closing seconds against Eastern Washington on Feb. 18 with the visiting Vandals trailing by two.
Ferenz rushed to tell Pierce, “Everything is fine. It’s OK.”
Ferenz banked in a 3-pointer – giving her 29 points – with a shot at the buzzer that only counted when officials reviewed a tape of the play and timed it with a stopwatch. It gave Idaho a 75-74 win.
Ferenz retains a strong memory of the Big Sky championship game their freshman season.
“We knew we were going to win, and Taylor and I hugged on court,” Ferenz said. “It was a special moment.”
Ferenz claims she has blocked from memory the disappointment of losing the title game last year.
“We had wanted it so bad,” she said.
“Especially since we had been there before and won it,” Pierce added.
With an overall 16-9 record, 13-3 in conference play, Idaho leads the Big Sky and is among favorites to win the league championship, get to the NCAA Tournament and send the Splash Sisters into history on a high note.
Both are accomplished students. Ferenz will graduate this year with a mathematics degree she hopes will lead to a career as an actuary. Pierce will return to school one more year to finish the lab classes she needs for an exercise science degree. Each hopes to play professionally before real life beckons.
In any event, their time as Vandals “exceeded my expectations,” as Ferenz said.
“It’s better than I ever imagined. Way over the top,” Pierce added.
Newlee lauds the work ethic, unselfish play and leadership of his Splash Sisters that he said created a legacy that will endure in the Vandals’ culture.
“They have earned every honor,” he said. “I could not be prouder of any two people I have ever coached.”