The Big Sky women’s tournament began in Boise on Monday afternoon. No. 8 Northern Arizona beat No. 9 Sac State to kick off the action. We will have current updates after each game here.
No. 10 Southern Utah 64, No. 7 Montana 56
One of Montana’s greatest strengths this season turned into its undoing on Monday night in Boise.
UM, one of the Big Sky Conference’s most athletic and best rebounding teams thanks in large part to the power of senior post Jace Henderson, could not find loose balls against upstart Southern Utah.
Instead, precocious 5-foot-5 junior point guard Rebecca Cardenas hustled her way to 14 rebounds to pace a dominant effort on the glass. Southern Utah ripped down 24 offensive rebounds and earned a 51-37 advantage overall.
The sizeable gap on the boards combined with an 11-2 start that the No. 10 seed road the rest of the way helped the Thunderbirds oust one of the Big Sky’s most storied programs 64-56 in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament at CenturyLink Arena.
“That was our No. 1 key to the game: we crash the boards, we should get a lot of second-chance points,” Cardenas said. “We just wanted it more. I think that’s why we crashed so hard.”
The Thunderbirds won just one game in February and March leading into this week’s tournament. SUU posted a 71-56 victory over the Lady Griz in Cedar City on March 2, marking just the second time in 19 all-time matchups that Southern Utah defeated a team that won the league 23 times between 1983 and 2015.
On Monday, the 7-22 Thunderbirds, winners of just four Big Sky games this season, showed the confidence of that win over UM carried over into the postseason.
“I think it did give us confidence because that was one of our better games of the season, our last matchup with them,” SUU first-year head coach Tracy Sanders said. “Having confidence coming into this tournament definitely helps.”
Lady Griz junior Gabi Harrington, a Boise native playing with the flu, hit the first bucket of the game for the Lady Griz. Sparked by six points from Ashley Larsen, SUU responded with an 11-0 run. The Thunderbirds never trailed again.
Cardenas, one of the feistiest and most competitive players in the league, hit three second-quarter 3-pointers, each time rubber her hands on her jersey like she was starting a fire with sticks and passionately spurring her teammates on verbally. Her jumper during a 13-point first half helped SUU enter halftime up 33-23.
The El Paso, Texas native finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds to lead four SUU payers in double figures scoring.
“She amazes me every day,” SUU first-year head coach said. “She’s a fierce competitor and I think that’s what everyone loves about her from the coaching staff to the players on our team. There’s not a day where you don’t get her best effort and that’s what we love about her. It’s pretty amazing she can be the size that she is and do what she does.”
UM cut the lead to five twice in the third quarter but entered the final frame down 50-42. UM sophomore Sammy Fatkin, who led UM with 13 points, scored five straight including an old-fashioned 3-point play that shaved the SUU advantage to 54-50 with 4:19 left.
Lady Griz junior point guard McKenzie Johnston’s last bucket with 92 seconds left served as UM’s only field goal over the final four minutes. SUU started the game 3-of-7 from the free throw line but made eight straight the second half of the final quarter to secure Sanders’ first Big Sky Tournament win.
“I’m proud of the way we kept cutting it down in the second half and fighting back,” UM third-year head coach Shannon Schweyen said. “It shows the type of grit this team has had all season. We’ve had a ton of things thrown at them. It was tough for us having a couple of kids with the flu and the things we’ve battled all year. But this has been a team that has fought until the end. They respond in ways that make you very proud.”
Harrington and Lady Griz junior Emma Stockholm have suffered from influenza the last week, Schweyen confirmed after the game. In the first half, Stockholm took a nasty spill and hit her head hard on the court. She did not return to the bench or the rotation.
That blow was the latest in a season wrecked by injuries for the third straight season. UM lost shooting guards Maddie Schoening, Taylor Goligoski, and Katie Mayhue all suffered season-ending injuries over the last four months. Sophia Stiles, the two-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year from Malta, Montana, blew out her knee last season and took a redshirt this year.
Because of the limited depth, Shannon Schweyen played her true freshman daughter Jordyn Schweyen and true freshman Kylie Frolich, Jordyn’s high school teammate at Missoula Sentinel, down the stretch.
Jordyn Schweyen finished 1-of-10 from beyond the arc on a night the Lady Griz shot 3-of-15 from deep. Frolich gave UM perhaps her best boost this season, scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds in 25 minutes.
“I felt like the girls that played gave it their all and in the fourth quarter and the girls that played gave it there all, so no excuse it,” Schweyen said. “You are going to have things you have to deal with and that’s part of sports.”
Johnston nearly posted a double-double, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds in 40 minutes. Henderson, UM’s lone senior, scored 11 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 38 minutes in her final game as a Lady Griz.
“They are a very athletic team and we just needed to get a body on somebody to make it a physical battle,” Henderson said. “We came back in the second half and tried to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor but sometimes, it’s too late.”
Shannon Schweyen’s third season at the helm for her alma mater ends with a 14-16 record overall, including a 3-12 mark away from Missoula. The losing record is the third straight for a program that qualified for 21 NCAA Tournaments under legend head coach Robin Selvig.
“The hard thing about being a coach is when you see those things (injuries) happen to young ladies and their seasons are ended,” Schweyen said. “You hate to see that and everybody goes through it at times. It was particularly hard on this team because of the fact that it happened to the same position, all the kids at the same spot. We ended up having to have a lot of kids play who we had intended on redshirting. That’s the way this season went.”
“This conference is too tough to just have good players,” Henderson added. “You have to have so much more to get a win. Those big wins (Idaho, Idaho State, Portland State in Missoula), regardless of who scored the most points, it was every single person locked in. I’ll tell you what…when they get that figured out, and I think they are going to next year, they are going to be scary.”
Larsen scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the victors. SUU senior Breanu Reid scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds to help the Thunderbirds advance to Tuesday’s quarterfinals. Southern Utah will take on No. 2 seed Northern Colorado, the reigning Big Sky Tournament champions.
“It feels great,” Cardenas said. “This is our first tournament win as a group. We wanted it for ourselves but we wanted it for Bre (Breanu Reid, SUU long senior) because we didn’t want her to finish like that. We fought for Bre and we fought hard for each other and that’s why we came out with it.”
No. 8 Northern Arizona 74, Sacramento State 69
The Hornets provide one of the toughest matchups in the league because of head coach Bunky Harkleroad’s penchant for switching defenses and Sac State’s ability to play fast.
It took Northern Arizona three quarters to settle in. Once they did, the Lumberjacks exploded for a 31-point fourth quarter to pull away for the first Big Sky Tournament win of NAU second-year head coach Loree Payne’s career.
“We showed a lot of resilience because that first game, there’s always nerves and adrenaline,” said Payne, a native of Havre, Montana who was an All-Pac 10 guard at Washington in the early 2000s. “I think we showed that a little early on but in the fourth quarter, we settled in and showed a ton of toughness down the stretch.
“It’s March Madness so it’s survive and advance and that’s exactly what we did today.”
Despite the loss of senior Kayleigh Paplow, a third-team All-Big Sky selection, to a busted right ankle with 6:35 left, the Lumberjacks were able to finish strong. Sac State’s lead swelled to as many as 10 points late in the third quarter before Paplow hit her lone 3-pointer and final bucket. When Paplow went down, she had 11 points and 12 rebounds and the score was tied at 51.
Khiarica Rasheed scored five straight points during a 6-0 run that gave NAU a 61-54 lead with 2:42 left.
Sac State guard Gabi Bade scored 11 of her 15 points in the final 99 seconds, including hitting a 3-pointer with eight seconds left to shave the gap to 70-66 and another triple six seconds later to cut it to 72-69. But NAU converted 13 of 18 free throws over those final 99 seconds, including four straight by true freshman Regan Schenck to seal the win.
“Kayleigh going down was a spark and the fact that we felt like we weren’t playing up to our potential,” Rasheed said. “We wanted it bad and we prevailed.”
Jacey Bailey, a sophomore transfer from Florida Atlantic, scored nine points in each half to finish tied with Rasheed as NAU’s leading scorers with 18 points each.
“We stepped up and worked together as a team down the stretch,” Bailey said. “With one of our strong, leading, go-to players down, we had to do that and we did what we needed to go.”
Junior forwards Hannah Friend and Kennedy Nicholas paced the Hornets, who finished their season on a six-game losing streak with a final record of 10-19. Friend, a second-team All-Big Sky selection, scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Nicholas, the league’s leading rebounder this season, scored nine points and ripped down 14 boards.
“Northern Arizona whooped us in the second half,” Sac State head coach Bunky Harkleroad said. “They had to face some adversity when Kayleigh went down and they responded by pretty much trying harder and wearing us out. You have to give them a lot of credit.”
Northern Arizona swept Montana State and Montana, then beat defending league champion Northern Colorado in the final game of the regular season. That helped the Lumberjacks creep into the No. 8 spot. Monday’s win gives NAU a shot at top-seeded Idaho in the first game of Tuesday’s quarterfinals at noon.
“Changing a culture is hard and for us, really starting to establish in these players to expect to win, not being overly confident but having the mentality that we can win any game we step into, that’s been a process,” Payne said. “That took a little bit to shift that. But we came in today expecting to win.
“It’s tough to be in the No. 1 seed’s bracket but I think with all the parody in the league this year and the fact that we didn’t know until that very last day who was going to be the No. 1 seed, we are just excited to be able to advance and play another day.”
No. 6 Eastern Washington 81, No. 11 Weber State 74
Violet Kapri Morrow saw the All-Big Sky teams released on Monday morning. Not earning first-team all-league honors despite averaging 18.6 points per game added more fuel to the fire.
Morrow will be the first to say that she’s the biggest fan of watching her teammates hit open shots. During Monday’s nightcap to the first day of the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Morrow earned a bit of vindication while getting to celebrate her teammates as well.
Morrow, a second-team all-conference pick, scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Her jumper with one second left in the third quarter led to an eight-point fourth quarter as Eastern Washington hit five 3-pointers in the final frame that saw the No. 6 seed score 33 points in the fourth quarter in an 81-74 win over 11th-seeded Weber State.
EWU true freshman Jessi McDowell-White and Grace Kirscher each hit a pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers to pace the Eagles’ 3-point barrage. McDowell-White scored a career-high 19 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Kirscher added 11 points. The rookie duo combined to shoot 7-of-10 from beyond the arc on a night EWU hit 14 3-pointers in 29 attempts.
“It’s so much fun when we are shooting like that and it’s fun anyways; I love playing with these girls,” Morrow said through an infectious laugh. “It’s like a rush. I get excited when any of my teammates score. If you watch the film, I jump up and down down the court I’m so excited.
“It makes me happy that the young girls want to fight for our success. After seeing the all-league list, that got us fired up, as you can tell. We were a little mad about it.”
Uriah Howard hit all three of her 3-point tries in a first quarter that saw Eastern hit seven triples and build a 24-21 lead. Behind the inspired play of entertaining senior point guard Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman, perhaps the best ball handler in the Big Sky, Weber State fought throughout despite winning just three of its 20 league games this season.
Coleman’s jumper with 46 seconds left in the third quarter gave the tournament’s last seed a 54-46 lead. WSU responded with an 11-0 run. WSU senior Emily Drake, who scored 16 points in her final game as a Wildcat, halted the run briefly. But EWU senior Alissa Sealby hit her second 3-pointer, Kirscher ripped a triple and McDowell-White drilled back-to-back from deep as Eastern buried the Wildcats.
“We were lethargic coming out of halftime and didn’t have a great third quarter so it was great to see us respond the way we did in the fourth,” EWU head coach Wendy Schuller said. “When you shoot the 3 like we did, you are going to win a lot of games. I was proud of our kids for stepping up when we needed to.
“We made some adjustments to what we were doing offensively, simplified it in the fourth and tried to spread them out and find shooters.”
Welch-Coleman, the Allen Iverson of the Big Sky, scored 21 of her game 30 points in the second half. Despite her 5-foot-3 height, she grabbed nine rebounds and dished out six assists. The Wildcats finished 6-25 in Velaida Harris’ first season as head coach.
“Every game is going to be a fight, last season, my last season, even my whole career, I’m going to fight every single game and I expect the same from my teammates,” Welch-Coleman said. “I’m proud of them for that. I just think that at the end of the day, this game, last game, I was going to give everything I had.”
EWU moved to 12-19 this season with the victory, earning a chance to play No. 3 seed Idaho State in the quarterfinals Thursday at 8 p.m. ISU won 63-48 at EWU and defeated Eastern 74-45 last week in Pocatello, Idaho.
“They are a tough matchup,” Schuller said. “They are big and physical, they have great post play, they have great 3-point shooters. They shot it well against us from 3 last Thursday night. And they execute. They are hard to score against because they really pack it in the lane. And they don’t let you get it in the paint to get anything easy. They are a well-coached team who is playing good basketball right now.”