RENO, Nevada — The Vandals would not be outdone.
On one of the wildest days in the 34-season history of the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament, the fourth and final game between Idaho and Weber State came down to the wire just like the three games that preceded it. And like the day’s three previous contests, the action came down to the final shot.
Idaho erased a four-point deficit in the final 10 seconds of regulation, then saw Taylor Pierce’s prayer rattle home at the overtime buzzer as the third-seeded Vandals moved into the tournament semifinals with an 86-83 win over the sixth-seeded Wildcats here on Wednesday night.
“I watched them all and it was a crazy, crazy day,” said Idaho head coach Jon Newlee, who’s team moved to 22-9 with the win. “I don’t know if there’s been a day like this ever in a post-season tournament with all these games going down to the wire to these buzzer beaters. It was totally crazy.”
In the first quarterfinal of the day, Juliet Jones drilled a 27-footer at the buzzer to lift ninth-seeded Idaho State past No. 1 Montana State, 52-50. In the second game, fifth-seeded Montana rallied from a 16-point deficit and had a McCalle Feller half-court heave at the buzzer to tie the game before losing 65-62 to No. 4 North Dakota. In the third game of the day, Hayley Hodgins hit a game-tying shot with a minute to play and the game-winning free throws with seven seconds left to lift the second-seeded Eagles into the semifinals with a 100-97 victory over seventh-seeded Sacramento State.
“This is the Big Sky Conference, so anything can happen at any time,” said Weber State senior point guard Brittney Dunbar, the Big Sky Defensive MVP who finished her career with 17 points, eight assists, six rebounds and four assists while playing the entire 45 minutes.
Pierce’s game-winner was her third 3-pointer of the game and Idaho’s 11th make from beyond the arc. True freshman Mikayla Ferenz hit four 3-pointers after halftime and a Big Sky tournament record eight triples overall to help Idaho rally from a 15-point first half deficit.
“Our coaches watched most of is and these girls watched some of the games too,” Newlee said. “That’s what we kept talking about. I told them teams came back all day and we are not giving up. We watched it all day and that gave us the confidence to know it’s not over until that red light is on that backboard.”
Weber State struck first in overtime as true freshman Yarden Danan hit her fifth 3-pointer of the game to pusher her total to 17 points. Weber responded with three free throws to knot the game at 79, then took the lead as senior center Ali Forde answered a Danan step-back jumper with four straight points to take an 83-81 lead with 1:40 left. Dunbar got into the lane and converted with 91 seconds left for the fourth tie of the period.
Idaho shaved off 22 seconds before Pierce missed a 3-pointer but Karlee Wilson grabbed the offensive rebound, allowing the Vandals to wind 30 more seconds off the clock.
Weber freshman Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman stripped Forde to give the Wildcats possession with 38 seconds left. After dribbling off 15 seconds, Weber called a timeout. Emily Drake tried a 3-point attempt with eight seconds left as the shot clock expired but Forde notched her second key block and Pierce secured the rebound.
The true freshman charged up the court and into a Weber trap. She lost the ball for a split second after drifting into the paint near the right elbow but got the ball back. She launched a fall-away 3-pointer as time expired right in front of her bench. As the shot rattled home, bedlam ensued as the Vandals mobbed their newest hero.
“Oh. My. Gosh. All I see is Taylor in this weird position going to throw the ball and thinking, ‘I’m going to crash and get a tip in’ and the ball just goes straight through the hoop,” said, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds despite sitting for almost 16 minutes in the second half because of foul trouble and totaling just 16 minutes. “I still can’t believe it. It’s crazy.”
Weber State stormed out to a 15-point lead two minutes into the second quarter thanks to Dunbar’s intense defense and Danan’s slick shooting. Idaho continued to chip away at the deficit despite an off night from senior Christina Salvatore. The first-team All-Big Sky selection finished 1-of-11 from the floor and 2-of-4 from the free throw line in scoring just four points but she grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds in 40 minutes of action.
Ferenz filled the void, breaking a Big Sky record for 3-pointers in a game and hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. The Walla Walla, Washington native’s triple with 3:02 left in the third quarter gave Idaho its first lead, 52-50. The Weber lead swelled to nine twice in the last five minutes of regulation and Ferenz answered with 3-pointers each time. Her layup with 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter cut the WSu lead to 74-72 and her 3-pointer with 10 seconds left drew Idaho within one, 76-75. She was fouled on a 3-point try with six seconds left and hit the game-tying 3-pointer to send the game to overtime. She finished with 29 points and seven rebounds in 41 minutes.
“Huge step up by this freshman right here,” Forde said, putting her arm around Ferenz in the post-game press conference. “I am so proud of her. She couldn’t miss. Our offense was not working out well. We weren’t executing how we were supposed to but Mikayla was on. To see her shoot like that was really cool.”
Junior Deeshyra Thomas scored 21 of her team-high 24 points but spent the majority of the extra period after fouling out. Welch-Coleman and Kailie Quinn scored 10 points each to join Dunbar, Thomas and Danan in double figures.
The victory earns Idaho a spot in the semifinals against Eastern Washington. In their first year in the Big Sky, the Vandals missed the tournament after winning the Western Athletic Conference the two seasons prior. EWU won in Moscow 74-66 in January and beat Idaho 84-70 in Cheney on February 27.
“We are going to go back and watch the games and come up with a game plan and hopefully get a different result,” Newlee said. “Our players will be ready to play on Friday. As coaches, we will have them prepared. They’ve got us twice and we are hoping the third time goes our way.”
The dramatic ending to a dramatic day ends Weber’s season, at least in terms of the Big Sky. The Wildcats are hoping for a bid to the WNIT. WSU’s 20 wins mark the most since the 2002-2003 season as Bethann Ord’s program made a huge step after posting nine league wins in her first four seasons at the helm.
“This is heartbreaking and there wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room,” Ord said. “Our girls put their heart and soul into this team. I wouldn’t go to battle with anyone else besides this group of young ladies. It’s hard to have it end like this but the hours and the blood, sweat and tears that this group had laid out there is unbelievable and I’m so proud of everyone of them.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.