BOISE, Idaho – A year ago, the Big Sky Conference moved its neutral site basketball tournaments here to play in Century Link Arena. The first postseason in Idaho’s capital city featured a collection of teams on the women’s side flush with veteran talent.
This year, the only team with a collection of seniors is the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament. Of the top five seeds in this tournament, only No. 1 Montana State and No. 4 Montana have more than one or two seniors who significantly contribute.
Last March, the Idaho Vandals took the No. 1 seed into the tournament behind the sharp shooting of Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce. The former finished her career as the league’s all-time leading scorer while the latter hit more 3-pointers than any player, man or woman, in the history of the Big Sky Conference.
Idaho’s storybook run fell short as a Portland State team led by the talented senior trio of Sidney Rielly, Ashley Bolston and Courtney West used their stifling zone defense to force the Vandals into a shooting slump that cost them their fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last seven years.
Savannah Smith carved out a reputation as one of the most explosive scorers and one of the great competitors in the history of the league during her career at Northern Colorado. As a junior, the precocious scoring guard shot the Bears into the NCAA Tournament and earned tourney MVP honors during the last year of the championship in Reno, Nevada.
But Smith’s career ended in disappointment, too. Eastern Washington freshman Jessica McDowell-White bounced an in-bounds pass off of Smith’s back, caught the ball and finished through contact to lift the sixth-seeded Eagles to an unforgettable upset of the second-seeded Bears.
That EWU win was the second bracket buster of the tournament. The Eagles ousted third-seeded Idaho State in the tournament’s quarterfinals for their second win in as many days, turning the table on the team that had more neutral site upsets than anyone in the conference.
Idaho State made a habit of going on memorable runs during the first three years of the neutral site format, helping head coach Seton Sobolewksi the nickname “The King of Reno.” He helped the Bengals advance to the championship game as the No. 9 seed the first year before playing for the title again the following year, this time as the No. 6 seed. The Bengals won two games as the fifth-seed before falling to Smith’s Bears in the semifinals of the final tournament in Reno.
Like Idaho’s “Splash Sisters” and Northern Colorado’s fearless captain, the careers of Idaho State veterans Saylair Grandon and Grace Kenyon ended abruptly.
That set up a championship game last March between the fourth-seeded Vikings and the No. 6 Eagles. McDowell-White, fellow freshman Bella Cravens and the Eagles did their best to knock off the athletic, experienced Vikings.
In a tournament full of seniors, PSU freshman Desirae Robinson hit the shot that proved the difference. The native of Rainier, Oregon hit a 15-footer with 3.1 seconds left to lift the Vikings to a 61-59 win, ending the career of All-Big Sky senior guard Violet Kapri Morrow in the process.
More outstanding players than any season in recent memory graduated following last year’s tournament. This year’s Big Sky has been one that has provided opportunities for previously unknown players to emerge.
Montana State rolled through the league, winning a Big Sky-record 19 conference games. The Bobcats enter this week’s tournament here riding a 15-game winning streak. MSU is the overwhelming favorites to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the last four seasons largely due to a deep roster featuring five seniors.
That group sat in the stands during the first game of the tournament Monday afternoon between No. 8 Northern Colorado and No. 9 Sacramento State. If Montana State is to hold off a UNC upset during Tuesday’s first quarterfinal game (opening tip is scheduled for noon MST), the Bobcats will have to find an answer for emerging freshman phenom Alisha Davis.
The athletic, strong and aggressive post player had her way against a Sac State front court battling without senior Kennedy Nicholas, a second-team All-Big Sky selection who suffered what ended up being a season-ending injury before the tournament.
Davis converted 10 consecutive field goals. She finished with 32 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the floor. Her shooting percentage of 91.6 is the second-best in a Big Sky Tournament game, ranking behind only Tennyson Ballek’s 9-of-9 game for Montana State against Northern Arizona in 1996.
“My teammates just look for me so that makes it easy for me to just play basketball,” Davis said.
Davis also knocked down 10 of her 12 tries from the charity stripe, finishing with a point total that ties for ninth in a single game in tournament history. She also added 13 rebounds as Northern Colorado advanced with a 79-61 win over the Hornets.
“I told her before the game that it was ok to have 40 points, she didn’t have to back away from it,” UNC second-year head coach Jenny Huth said with a laugh. “She was close.
“I credit our team. They do want to find her. They know that the matchup was there and she was rolling. We have a really unselfish bunch and I give them a lot of credit for that. Alisha is humble and she wants to share the ball but we tell her not to pass. She has such a knack around the rim, great touch and really good skill down low.”
Davis’ breakout game set the stage for an opening day highlighted by standout performances by freshmen. It also continued the trend of rookies peaking this time of year the last four years.
This year’s Portland State squad features just two seniors: All-Big Sky point guard Kylie Jimenez and center Jordan Stotler. Fifth-year head Lynn Kennedy added a group of six talented freshmen to his roster, including 6-foot sharpshooter Belle Frazier to his roster.
Monday, Frazier had her best game as a Viking, drilling five 3-pointers in the first half and finishing with a career-high 19 points to help pace PSU to an 83-70 victory over Eastern Washington in a rematch of last season’s championship game.
“I wasn’t sure how our young group was going to start but we shot the lights out in the first and second quarter,” Kennedy said. “I liked how we stayed together as a young team and continued to fight through it.
“You look at last year and the quality of teams that were in the Big Sky Tournament, from one to seven, we had senior heavy teams and I think it’s exciting to look at right now with how young the league is.”
Hansen’s last shot in Boise before Monday helped the Vikings go dancing. Her first shot this week also tickled the twine, igniting a shooting barrage by the Vikings.
Hansen hit five of her six tries from beyond the 3-point arc as PSU nailed 11 3-ponters and shot 46 percent from deep as Jimenez played her roll as facilitator perfectly, dishing out 11 assists. Hansen scored a game-best 27 points to lead the Vikings into the quarterfinals, where they will try to upset Idaho for the second year in a row.
“This was just another game,” Hansen said. “We are in the playoffs, we have two more games to go to get to the championship. I like playing here.
“She likes playing anywhere,” Kennedy made sure to add. “We could have that game outside, out on the street, and she would be fine.”
Eastern Washington, a team that has battled depth issues and injuries during the least successful season of Wendy Schuller’s 19 at the helm, fell behind by 20 points during the third quarter against PSU. But a pair of freshmen settled in and helped the Eagles make the contest competitive.
EWU true freshman Jenna Dick hit three of her four triples during a four-minute span. Her second 3-pointer of the third quarter capped a 15-2 run for the Eagles and shaved the gap from 20 to seven, 57-50. Her fourth 3-pointer of the night cut the PSU advantage to 64-57 with 8:35 to play.
Eastern freshman Kennedy Dickie scored 10 points in the first half, then hit a pair of triples in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer with 3:41 left to cut the lead to 73-68 before the Vikings finally pulled away for good.
“We just adjusted and started playing together,” Dickie said when asked about the run.
Dickie finished with a team-high 20 points, giving EWU some optimism entering the off-season after finishing 4-25 this season. EWU graduates just one senior (Leya Depriest) from its roster.
“If they have played a lot of minutes like our freshmen have, they are not freshmen anymore,” Schuller said. “It is different when you step onto that floor for your first conference tournament. I think you saw a little bit of that early on but these guys are fearless and they are gunslingers. What goes into it is recruiting and recruiting kids with that mentality. We are fortunate we have a few of them.”
Particularly in the women’s league, the previous four neutral site tournaments have provided a stage for freshmen to emerge. The trio of Oliana Squires, Blaire Braxton and Madeline Smith all cut their teeth in Reno, helping Montana State punch its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since 1992 by contributing as rookies. Four years later, that trio has provided the foundation for MSU’s historic success.
In the 2016 tournament, Ferenz put the rest of the league on notice by scoring 67 points in Idaho’s three wins, still the fifth-most in the history of the championship. She knocked down 16 3-pointers, setting a tournament record that would stand for two seasons before Pierce hit 20 triples in a single tournament.
Pierce also helped Idaho survive a quarterfinal upset bid by Weber State, hitting a fall-away 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime before UI found a way to win in extra time. The “Splash Sisters” excelled individually for the rest of their careers but never returned to the tournament.
In 2017, Bianca Thacker’s slick shooting helped lift Idaho State into the championship game before the Bengals lost 62-56 to the Bobcats.
The 2018 tournament, the final postseason in Boise, did not have an emergent rookie star but last year’s EWU run continued the notion that freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore this time of year. McDowell-White and Cravens were each freshmen on the EWU team that nearly became the lowest seeded team to ever win the Big Sky Tournament.
Weber State struggled more than any other team in the league during this regular-season. A roster featuring five freshmen and only one seniors turned the ball over at a historic rate and the Wildcats lost 15 straight games entering their season finale against EWU.
But Weber managed to steal a win less than a week before the beginning of the tournament, beating the Eagles 83-77 in overtime. The inexperienced Wildcats carried that momentum into Monday’s nightcap against a wildly improved Southern Utah team that finished sixth in the league standings in Tracey Saunders’ second season at the helm.
WSU led by as many as nine points midway through the second quarter and took a 32-29 advantage into halftime. Daryn Hickok scored seven of her 11 points before halftime.
SUU senior Rebecca Cardenas eventually willed the Thunderbirds to a 62-58 victory. Although Weber State finished 4-26, second-year head coach Valaida Harris is optimistic about the future.
“I think a lot of is is the leadership they get from their upper classmen and a lot of it is the confidence they get from their coaches. We recruited them for a reason,” Harris said when asked about freshmen emerging in March. “We just have to keep feeding and pouring into that. And at some point, they are going to trust us.
“They have to be confident. They come in with skill. That’s why we got you. We recruited you here. If at some point they don’t feel any good, we have to keep encouraging him. All across the board in this conference and today, the freshmen stepped up.”
Tuesday’s quarterfinals will feature some of the league’s best seniors, most of whom play for schools in Montana or hail from the Treasure State. MSU has its five seniors led by Fallyn Freije, a former transfer from North Dakota who earned Big Sky Player of the Year on Monday. Freije and the Bobcats will face Davis and the Bears to open Tuesday’s action.
“Why not us?” said UNC forward Ali Meyer, one of two seniors for the Bears. “I think this whole season, we knew it would be an uphill battle just with the legacy that has been left before us and the teams I’ve played on before this year. But we have a lot of pride in who we are and we want to come in here, have a fun time and do what we do. That’s play basketball and do it together.”
Senior point guard McKenzie Johnston, a first-team All-Big Sky selection, leads the fourth-seeded Lady Griz of Montana. Southern Utah’s Cardenas is the other Big Sky senior to earn first-team all-league recognition and she will lead her team in the quarterfinals for the second straight season to take on No. 3 Idaho State in the nightcap Tuesday.
Johnston and the Lady Griz play their biggest game of fourth-year head coach Shannon Schweyen’s tenure. Fourth-seeded UM takes on No. 5 Northern Arizona in Tuesday’s second quarterfinal. Schweyen received a one-year contract extension before the season and has led the Lady Griz to the first first-round bye of her tenure. He roster features three seniors: Johnston, post Emma Stockholm and reserve shooter Taylor Goligoski. NAU’s starting lineup features one senior: Lauren Orndoff.
Idaho’s roster features just two seniors in its rotation, including just one in its starting lineup. Forward Lizzy Klinker, a native of Fairfield, Montana, earned third-team all-conference honors. Sophomore Gina Marxen, last year’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year, landed on the first team while freshman Beyonce Bea was a third-team all-conference pick. The Vandals will try to avenge last year’s upset at the hands of the Vikings in the third quarterfinal of the day, scheduled to tip at 5:30 p.m.
MSU senior combo guard Oliana Squires was the only senior to land on the all-league second team. Idaho State landed a pair of players, junior guard Dora Goles and sophomore forward Callie Bourne on the second team. ISU’s lone senior, Estefania Ors, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the first month of the season. The third-seeded Bengals will play Southern Utah in the final quarterfinal of the day 30 minutes after the PSU-UI game ends.
The rest of the week will be a clash of teams trying to over achieve and knock off the overwhelming favorites.
“Montana State is a team that is ranked ahead of most mid-majors out West in terms of RPI so that’s a team that deserves national recognition,” Kennedy said. “It proves that when Big Sky teams become veteran, we can compete at the highest level.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.