Senior Spotlight

SPLASH SISTERS: Pierce, Ferenz the most prolific duo in college basketball history


On the surface, comparisons of Idaho’s sharpshooting senior duo to the legendary Splash Brothers of the Golden State Warriors might seem like marketing ploy rather than real parallel.

Take a deeper dive into the world of the most unconscious shooting duo in the history of collegiate basketball, however, and you find that Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, dubbed the ‘Splash Sisters’ first by Idaho head coach Jon Newlee, make up the most prolific pair to ever suit up simultaneously in the history of college basketball.

Pierce announced herself to the rest of the Big Sky Conference with a buzzer-beater in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Big Sky Tournament to beat Weber State. That shot capped a wild day that saw all four women’s contests end in buzzer-beaters. It also helped Idaho advance during a tournament run that eventually saw the Vandals claim the title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

That same week, Ferenz gave the rest of the league a preview of things to come. She hit a tournament-record 16 3-pointers in Idaho’s three victories, earning Big Sky Tournament MVP honors as a true freshman as the Vandals claimed the league’s first neutral site tournament title in Reno.

Ferenz hit 79 3-pointers as a rookie, at the time the fifth-most in Idaho history. Pierce hit 88 triples, the second-most ever by a Vandal and the 21st-most in the NCAA that season.

Those numbers have exploded since as the green light provided by Newlee, their cavalier and unapologetic head coach, has become basically incandescent.

If Ferenz is Steph Curry — the preseason MVP of the league shares the parallel to Curry’s two MVPs in the NBA — then Pierce makes the perfect Klay Thompson.

Earlier this season, Ferenz broke former Idaho State superstar Natalie Doma’s Big Sky record for career points, a mark once thought unbreakable. And Pierce has poured in 3-pointers at a historic level, putting her on the brink of history on the national level with the Big Sky Tournament getting set to open this week in Boise.

“They are very, very good at it, obviously,” said Montana State head coach Tricia Binford after the ‘Splash Sisters’ combined to hit 14 triples for the second straight time against the Bobcats this season. “I think they should go suit up for the Warriors.

“What’s most impressive is you have two on the same team,” Binford, the league’s longest-tenured coach at 14 seasons, continued. “…To put that amount of 3s up in parallel careers is so impressive.”

Idaho senior guard MiKayla Ferenz (21)/by Brooks Nuanez

Ferenz, who is averaging a 22.5 points per game for the second straight season, has hit 101 triples this season, giving her 400 in her career. That’s nearly 100 more than previous Big Sky record-holder Maranne Johnson of Sacramento State.

But Ferenz is getting lapped by her sharpshooting teammate. Through Newlee’s constant demands to shoot any time she finds daylight, Pierce has entered unchartered territory. She hit a then Idaho record 93 triples as a sophomore. Last season, Pierce hit a Big Sky single-season record 137 3s, the second-best single-season total in the history of Division I college basketball.

“There’s no doubt she has the greenest light of anybody I’ve ever coached and in the country for sure,” Newlee said.

St. Francis (PA) sniper Jessica Kovatch nailed 141 3-pointers last season to set the single-season NCAA mark. Ferenz’s total of 129 ranked third in the country last season and is the third-best single-season total ever.

“I’m more excited for her accomplishments than I am for my own,” Ferenz said. “And I think it’s the same way for her.

“I’m so happy she’s accomplished this because she works harder honestly than anybody I’ve ever met.”

This season, Pierce has been a weapon unlike any deep threat the Big Sky has ever seen. She drilled five 3-pointers in UI’s conference opener against Idaho State, marking the first of 12 times in league play alone that Pierce has converted at least five shots from beyond the arc. She has hit as many as eight triples in a game five times this season, including in both games against Montana State.

Her 132 triples leads the country by a large margin, 20 more than Kovatch has made in her senior year and 10 away from breaking Kovatch’s year-old record. In Idaho’s season finale against Idaho State, Pierce made 3 more 3-pointers, giving her an unbelievable 450 in her memorable career.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Pierce said when asked about holding the Big Sky’s all-time mark by more than a season’s worth of treys. “I’ve put in a lot of time and to see it come to what it’s become is really awesome for me and I’m really proud of everything I’ve done.”

Against ISU this season, Ferenz went 5-of-5 from beyond the arc during a 23-point outing, making the Walla Walla, Washington native the fifth player in NCAA history to hit 400 3s in her career.

Only Kovatch (461) and former Ohio State standout Kelsey Mitchell, who holds the NCAA record with 497 triples in 139 career games between 2015 and 2018, have been more prolific from beyond the arc than Pierce.

Idaho senior guard Taylor Pierce (14)/by Brooks Nuanez

The Vandals currently lead the nation by averaging 11.7 made 3-pointers per game. That sweet shooting has boosted Idaho to its first Big Sky regular-season title since 1994 and the second in program history.

Pierce and Ferenz are at a combined 850 3-pointers made and counting, far and away the NCAA record for a pair of teammates at the same school in the same class.

“There is no doubt they are two of the best individual shooters this league has seen,” Montana third-year head coach Shannon Schweyen, arguably the greatest player in the history of the Big Sky during her All-American career at UM in the early 1990s, said after Pierce hit eight 3-pointers against her Lady Griz. “And the fact that they have done it together is just amazing.”

“It’s amazing. It’s stunning is what it is,” added Newlee. “Especially because the last two years, everyone has targeted them. They have not snuck up on anybody. Those are crazy numbers to think about, especially fro two kids in the same class on the same team.”

Newlee is an admitted NBA junky that watches the Warriors’ sets and implements many of Steve Kerr’s concepts. He’s specifically recruited “The Splash Sisters” specifically to replicate the style trademarked by the “Splash Brothers”.

Pierce and Ferenz can both make 3-pointers coming off screens, off the dribble, when using on-ball screens, catching skip passes and with the sweet step-backs they have each honed through hours of challenging each other to one-on-one games. But it’s their shooters’ mentalities that make them peerless among Big Sky gunners.

 “You might knock Pierce down, then she might shoot an airball, then she’ll make five in a row,” Montana senior power forward Jace Henderson, an all-league candidate, said earlier this season. “And Ferenz, when she gets going, can beat you off the dribble as well as shooting 3s.

“You have to have a short memory and not let them get in your head when you are trying to guard those two because they make so many crazy shots.”

Watching Pierce gun these days — she is shooting nearly 11 3s per game all by herself — one would never believe that when she was a freshman, the Carlsbad, California native used to get taken out of games for passing up shots.

Idaho senior guard MiKayla Ferenz (21)/by Brooks nuanez

“Over the years, I’ve grown into taking every shot that I have,” Pierce said. “But there’s still times this year where coach has said, ‘This is the shot’, he’s shown me the film, and I didn’t shoot it. But I think over the conference season, I’ve done a really good job of letting it fly.”

Newlee, who hails from San Diego near Carlsbad, couldn’t believe his eyes the first time he ever saw Pierce playing in a club tournament when she was a prep sophomore.

Newlee knew if he could harness her raw skill — she has among the quickest releases you will ever see at any level and her ability to square her feet from basically any angle imaginable is second to none — he would have quite a weapon on his hands.

“The first time I saw her, Taylor was absolutely lighting it up,” Newlee said. “She was getting it off quick even as a 10th grader. She hit 10 3s the first time I watched her. I was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me, who is this girl?

Over the last four years, Ferenz’s ability to draw defenses, Pierce’s unrivaled ability to execute Newlee’s arsenal of actions and a head coach hell-bent on instilling confidence has helped Pierce form extraordinary confidence. She is shooting 39.9 percent from deep for her career on an unbelievable 1,121 attempts. She has basically averaged 4.5 makes and 10.9 attempts from the 3-point line during her 129-game career.

“It took me a little bit to get there because obviously I don’t make them all,” said Pierce, who is hitting at a 40.4 percent clip this season. “It’s easy to shoot a bunch when you are making them.

“Coach has expressed his confidence in me, even when I’m missing, it’s ok, the next one is going in. Having that confidence from him, I’ve really grown having confidence in myself. I think it helps when your teammates are hyping you up the entire game, telling you the next one is going in.”

Ferenz has lived in the gym since she was a kid.

“I was spoiled – I always had a rebounder and a court,” Ferenz said.

Idaho senior guard MiKayla Ferenz (21)/by Brooks Nuanez

Michelle Ferenz is in her 18th season roaming the sidelines at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Her program has qualified for the Northwest Conference postseason tournament each of the past eight seasons and for the NCAA tournament four of the past six seasons.

Whitman was ranked as high as No. 2 in the Division III national polls last season. The team advanced to the Elite Eight of the tournament two seasons ago. The team went undefeated until the national championship game in 2013-14. Michelle Ferenz is 236-152 in her head coaching career.

And Ferenz’s father, Chris, is a longtime assistant for the Walla Walla High boys’ basketball team.

“When we were on the court, it was all basketball, when we were at home, it was all family,” Ferenz said. “It has definitely been a huge part of my development. I learned so much before I got here.”

Newlee ranks Ferenz’s traveling team the Northwest Blazers as “maybe the best club team in the country, certainly in the top 5”. That combined with Ferenz’s entrenched basketball IQ helped Newlee project the high school point guard into the most lethal scorer in the history of the league.

“I could see that she could flat out shoot the basketball,” Newlee said.

Newlee coached Doma, a 6-foot-3 powerhouse who scored 2,296 points and grabbed 1,174 rebounds from 2004 until 2008. Doma’s scoring output helped her pass Schweywen (formerly Shannon Cate) for the league scoring record.

Ferenz tied Doma’s single-season scoring record by pouring in 742 last season, giving her 1,717 points entering her final season. Ferenz scored just three points in Idaho’s second game against Stanford. She then went on a run that included 30 against Boise State, 31 against Long Beach State and a season-high 40 against San Francisco. She scored 32 in a rout of Montana State, 39 against Northern Arizona and 654 points overall in her senior season.

Ferenz enters the conference tournament with 2,371 points in a career that includes first-team All-Big Sky honors each of the last three seasons.

“It’s amazing,” Ferenz said. “I definitely didn’t think that would happen coming in. I didn’t really consider breaking the conference record until the end of last year. My dad was like, ‘If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll probably break it.”

Ferenz has averaged exactly 22.5 points per game over the last two seasons.

Idaho senior guard Taylor Pierce (14)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I don’t really know how to describe it but I’m proud of my hard work.”

Back in 2016, Idaho was the most proven team in the league. Newlee, who led Idaho State to the 2006 Big Sky title, led the Vandals to consecutive NCAA Tournaments Idaho’s final two seasons in the Western Athletic Conference.

Idaho’s first year back in the Big Sky marked the last season the league awarding hosting rights to the regular-season league champions. Montana’s men and women both won the league, giving Missoula a duel-site tournament that the Lady Griz won and the men Griz lost in the championship game.

Because his team had experience in neutral site tournaments, Idaho ripped through the first tournament in Reno. Ferenz and Pierce announced themselves to the league. And the clutch play of Christina Salvatore, steady floor general Karlee Wilson and spiritual leader Ali Ford helped UI advance to the Big Dance for the third time in four years.

After defeating Idaho State, the team he led to an NCAA Tournament and three WNITs between 2002 and 2008, in the Big Sky Tournament championship game, the Vandals drew a 16-seed. Top-seeded and fourth-ranked Baylor had little trouble in an 89-59 win.

UI lost to Eastern Washington the following year in Reno. Montana State advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a generation. That team did make a run to the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational.

Last season, Northern Colorado completed its coronation as the league champions by destroying Idaho 91-69 in the tournament championship game. The Vandals lost 82-62 in the first round of the WNIT.

Those extra games have helped add to each player’s remarkable numbers. But it’s also served as motivation. The Splash Sisters want to bookend their careers by going dancing one last time.

Idaho senior guard MiKayla Ferenz (21) and Taylor Pierce (14)/by Idaho Vandal Athletics

“When you get to experience the NCAA Tournament one time, you don’t want to experience anything else,” Pierce said. “Going out the way we did the last two years has been really, really good motivation for getting back there.”

The top-seeded Vandals will play the winners of No. 8 Northern Arizona and No. 9 Sacramento State. Idaho’s first postseason game in Century Link Arena in the team’s home state tips at noon on Tuesday.

“It’s been my dream to play in the NCAA Tournament again,” Ferenz said. “I remember experiencing the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four with my mom at the D-III level and that was amazing. That was always a goal of mine as a college athlete.

“Freshman year, that was the best experience and that has fueled all my hard work the last couple of years. I have always wanted to go back.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or Idaho Vandal Athletics. All Rights Reserved. 


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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