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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Idaho basketball

Sacramento State asserts itself in fourth quarter to pull away from Idaho and into Big Sky semifinals

March 6, 2023 Updated Mon., March 6, 2023 at 8:15 p.m.

Sacramento State center Isnelle Natabou celebrates with teammates during a Big Sky tournament quarterfinals game against Idaho on Monday in Boise.  (Courtesy of Big Sky Conference)
Sacramento State center Isnelle Natabou celebrates with teammates during a Big Sky tournament quarterfinals game against Idaho on Monday in Boise. (Courtesy of Big Sky Conference)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – Resiliency has been a precious commodity this season for the Idaho Vandals.

Having four freshmen in an eight-player rotation demands it. So does a six-game losing streak in January.

And when the Vandal women drew Sacramento State – tri-champs of the Big Sky Conference regular season, but the third seed off the tiebreakers – for their tournament opener, they knew they’d have summon more. Which they did, trailing by just a basket a few seconds into the fourth quarter.

But then the all-league combo of Kahlaijah Dean and Isnelle Natabou ultimately imposed their will with 15 of the Hornets’ final 25 points, and Sac State ended Idaho’s season with a 73-58 decision at Idaho Central Arena.

That the Vandals were even in striking distance after three periods was remarkable, having shot just 36% and seeing Big Sky scoring champ Beyonce Bea get off to a 1-of-9 start. Again, more resilience.

“But it’s disappointing to get here and not have the kind of game we’re capable of,” said UI coach Jon Newlee.

But he had to give Sac State some of the credit for that.

The Hornets ratchet down the pace to their liking (“I go to sleep watching them play,” Newlee said) and shoot it well – 10 of 25 from beyond the arc on this day. And they have the most unique duo in the league in Dean and Natabou.

The Sky’s Player of the Year, the 5-foot-6 Dean can score (22 points), create (eight assists) and bang – a game-high 13 rebounds. The transfer from Oakland University is nearly impossible to keep in front of, what with her handle and assortment of angles off ball screens.

“Her ability to dictate tempo and manipulate the pick and roll – she’s seen every coverage,” said Sac coach Mark Campbell. “Once she figures out what they’re trying to do, she’s a load.”

That also describes Natabou, 6-foot-5 and solidly built, who does all her work on the block – 22 points and 10 rebounds against UI.

“She can move people out and use her size to make space,” said Idaho’s 6-2 Tiana Johnson. “I needed to do a better job of getting her out of there, but she uses her size well.”

With just one field goal in the final 6:50 of the first quarter – Sac took a 17-10 lead – the Vandals’ course was charted early. Four 3s in the second quarter kept the Sac lead from getting out of hand, and Idaho started fighting back in the third period, holding the Hornets to just four field goals.

That’s when Bea finally got untracked a bit.

“I just wasn’t finishing well,” said the senior forward, whose 16 points were seven under her season average. “I was getting shots but not knocking them down like I usually do. In the second half, I relaxed a little more.”

And when she opened the fourth quarter with a layup, the Vandals trailed just 48-46.

But two costly turnovers – unforced, ill-advised passes – cost the Vandals dearly, and they couldn’t stop Natabou on post-ups or Dean on drives.

The inconsistency that marked UI’s season – the Vandals finished 13-17 – certainly marked their final appearance. But Newlee noted that the team’s coping went beyond the court, in devastating loss and fear that gripped the Idaho campus following the slaying of four students in November.

“To fight back from that and focus in on basketball and understand that they can get out on the floor and just have fun, I was proud of them,” he said. “I don’t think people understand just how hard that situation was on everybody.”

The Vandals will move on nearly intact – Johnson has used all of her eligibility, but Bea has opted to take the COVID exemption year and will return.

“Her coming back makes my offseason – I can’t wait,” Newlee said. “If I could start tomorrow, I would.”

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