RENO — The Big Sky Conference will have a new representative on in the NCAA women’s national tournament.
Eastern Washington used a quick start to build a 10-point first quarter lead before withstanding a comeback by the reigning Big Sky Tournament champion Idaho Vandals.
Junior Delaney Hodgins scored seven of her game-high 23 points to stake EWU to an early 12-3 lead, then netted 16 points after halftime as her fourth-seeded Eagles posted a 73-65 win to move into Friday’s first semifinal against No. 1 seed Montana State.
“I think a good start is what we lacked in the second game where we got blown out (77-51 at Idaho in February),” said Hodgins, the Big Sky’s third-leading scorer. “We didn’t have that fired in us. We had that today when we went up 8-0 to start and that really helped us keep pushing it.”
The victory gives EWU 18 this season, including two in three matchups over the rival Vandals. Eastern Washington beat Idaho 67-57 in Cheney to open conference play only to get destroyed in Moscow six weeks later.
“They are one of our rivals just because they are our travel partners and we always are really competitive with them,” Hodgins said. “We played them three times last year and they beat us here. Today, we really showed them who we are.”
“This team was determined today,” added EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “I told them afterward that as a coach, you want this time of year to be a culmination of all the lessons learned throughout the course of a season. We learned a lesson when we played at Idaho. That lesson helped us today.”
The Vandals ripped off three straight wins here last season, including beating EWU 86-71 in the semifinals. Idaho advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons by beating Idaho State in the first neutral site championship here.
This season, Idaho held lofty expectations and looked like the reigning tournament champions in a first-round win over Southern Utah on Monday. On Wednesday, the fast start coupled with EWU’s stiff defense and a 49-34 advantage on the glass to end Idaho’s title defense.
“Every time we’ve had a game this year where we were supposed to win — and I know Eastern is the four-seed and we are the 5-seed but we just beat them by 27 – and every time that has happened this year…I think about the first game in Cheney when we were picked to win the league and we played just like this,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “Unfortunately, some of our players are not used to that kind of pressure, that kind of spotlight. They didn’t respond well.”
The Eagles denied Idaho shooters Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, making the Vandals work for every shot. Idaho shot 35 percent overall, including 29 percent (9-of-31) from beyond the arc. Eastern Washington secured enough stops to keep the advantage at double figures for almost the entire fourth quarter.
“We were flat,” Newlee said. “We always talk about attacking down hill and that wasn’t happening for us in that first quarter with that slow start. We have seen pressure before. Eastern does a great job on defense. Wendy does a fantastic job with her basketball team, no doubt about that. I thought we would come out with more energy given the way we played Monday. We moved the basketball against the same pressure. I think there were some players on our team that were tight.”
Ferenz, a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore after finishing second in the league in scoring, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut EWU’s lead to 47-42 with 2:38 left in the third quarter. Ferenz hit just two of her last six shots thereafter.
“On the defensive end, we had great effort and intensity,” EWU head coach Wendy Schuller said. “We had a really specific game plan not only as a whole but on specific players. We did as good a job as we have all year as far as defending people. It takes focus to do that for 40 minutes.”
One of the top streak shooters in the league, the sophomore scored 67 points during last season’s tournament run, setting a program-record with 16 3-pointers, including eight in a win over Weber State. Ferenz finished with 23 points and hit five 3-pointers but finished 8-of-20 overall, 5-of-14 from the arc.
“They just pressured us and we didn’t handle the pressure like we should’ve,” said Idaho senior Karlee Wilson after her last college game. “We’ve seen pressure like that before. We knew it was going to be a physical game playing Eastern. We didn’t respond like we should’ve.”
Wilson finished her final game as a Vandal with just two points but dished out eight assists. The 5-foot-4 point guard from Lewiston, Idaho was a key contributor to Idaho’s last WAC tournament championship as a freshman and to U of I’s run to the Big Sky tournament title last season.
“It’s extremely hard to say goodbye if this the last game for Karlee because she’s been such a huge part of our program,” Newlee said. “I knew the day Karlee committed to us as a junior, we were going to win championships because Karlee is a winner. She is the ultimate winner, the ultimate competitor and the ultimate fighter. I wish I had 15 players that played as hard every day at practice, that played as hard every day in games, every day in the off-season, every drill, everything that Karlee did in her career at Idaho. I would be blessed to have 15 of those people but you know what? I feel blessed that had one. She is the greatest example of what hard work can do if you are not 6-2 and crazy athletic, what you can do with what God gave her. She is one of the greatest players I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. I love Karlee Wilson. I would love to have 15 of her every day of my life and I’d keep coaching until I was 100.”
On the other end, EWU all-conference point guard Tisha Phillips ran the offense with efficiency. Phillips finished with 19 points and three assists Wilson, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, shadowing her for the full 40 minutes. EWU shot 50 percent in the final quarter and 48 percent after halftime.
“Tisha drew the assignment (of Ferenz) and what an effort to handle the point guard duties and be pressured by the Defensive Player of the Year all game long and to have to guard Ferenz all game long, that’s a phenomenal performance.”
Eastern Washington will try for its first win this season over Montana State. The Bobcats an 88-83 win over EWU in Bozeman behind 30 points from league MVP Peyton Ferris the second weekend of conference play. MSU earned the season sweep thanks to 23 points by Hannah Caudill to post a 72-61 win in Cheney.
“We are happy to play Friday and they are a great basketball team,” Schuller said. “They beat us twice this year. They have the player of the year in the conference in Peyton Ferris, who is hard to handle. They play extremely hard. We know we will have our work cut out for us. We lost in overtime a their place in a game we thought we should’ve won. We learned some lessons and we will be ready.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.