RENO — As the horn sounded and Tisha Phillips’ shot grazed off the front of the rim, the ball bounced twice to center of the Reno Events Center court, fittingly landing in Peyton Ferris’ hands.
The Big Sky Conference MVP grabbed the Wilson Evolution and enthusiastically spiked it in celebration. After a career filled with coming up short, Ferris and the Montana State Bobcats will have one more chance to win a championship.
Ferris shook off foul trouble to score all 16 of her points after halftime, Riley Nordgaard posted her second double-double of the Big Sky Tournament including grabbing the two biggest offensive rebounds of her career, Annika Lai hit two timely buckets down the stretch and the top-seeded Bobcats advanced with a 61-59 win over Eastern Washington on Friday.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Ferris, one of the most decorated Treasure State natives in Big Sky Conference history. “We are ecstatic to go to the championship. We have one more and we want it bad.”
The victory gives Montana State its 24th victory this season, tying a 30-year-old school record. It also gives MSU its first championship game since 2010 and the third under 12th-year head coach Tricia Binford.
“I’m so proud of this team, the resilience and character of this team all season,” said Binford, who led Montana State to the last two Big Sky regular-season crowns. “This has been a team all year, a variety of kids stepping up and making plays. That’s what they did today to finish it.”
The Bobcats entered this tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight season. Last March, Idaho State hit a half-court buzzer-beater to eliminate Montana State in the quarterfinals after only one game. In the quarterfinals this season, Weber State ran a triangle-and-2 defense to keep the ball out of Ferris’ hands to push the champions down to the wire. MSU eventually pulled away for a 66-55 win.
Friday’s semifinal opening game was a battle for the full 40 minutes. Ferris went scoreless in the first half and MSU trailed 27-23 at intermission. Ferris scored nine points in the third quarter but EWU extended its lead by a point to 45-40 entering the fourth quarter.
The Bobcats have made a habit of closing out close games during one of the best seasons in school history. Montana State swept EWU in the regular-season, including beating Eastern 88-83 in overtime in Bozeman, one of three overtime wins in league play. MSU is 5-1 in games decided by five points or less this season.
“That’s a big different between this year’s team and last year’s team,” said Nordgaard, a senior who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. “Not to compare but this team, we’ve had to grind out a lot of games whether it was through our non-conference season or through conference. This is a competitive conference and we have been fortunate enough in those situations to respond and have various individuals step up. Come tournament time, especially after the way our season ended last year, I knew this team wasn’t going to quit.”
Even as Eastern Washington first-team all-league junior Delaney Hodgins found her shooting stroke, Nordgaard and the Bobcats indeed refused to quit. The first of four straight makes from beyond the arc by Hodgins, who finished with 18 points, gave EWU its five-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Nordgaard began the final frame by ripping down one of her five offensive rebounds, dribbling the ball in front of the MSU bench and drilling a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game. Neither team led by more than a bucket from there.
Ferris hit two pairs of free throws in the final three minutes, each set staking MSU to a one-point lead. Her second pair gave MSU a 57-56 lead with 1:42 left. Montana State harassed Hodgins into a miss on a baseline jumper, then looked for Ferris. She missed because of EWU senior Ashley Payne’s physical defense but Nordgaard came up with an even bigger offensive board.
Montana State took nearly 50 seconds off the clock between Ferris’ miss, Nordgaard’s rebound and Lai’s first clutch bucket. Her left-handed finish off the glass gave Montana State a 59-56 lead with 41 seconds left.
“(Nordgaard) brought tons of energy, got so many key offensive boards in that fourth quarter,” Lai said. “Peyton played a huge role making tons of shots in the second half. They are our captains and they stepped up today.”
But Hodgins was not finished.
The 6-foot wing drilled a corner 3-pointer on a designed play to tie the game at 59 with 29 seconds left. Binford called a timeout and turned to her seniors.
Nordgaard dribbled the clock down under five seconds while Payne relentlessly denied Ferris in the high post. Nordgaard called for a screen but EWU’s defense hedged it, forcing Nordgaard to make a different decision.
“I was trying to get the ball to Peyton and (Payne) was all over Peyton so she came out to screen,” Nordgaard said. “As she came out to screen, I noticed they were sagging off of Annika. Honestly, I didn’t have much thought — as a senior, it could’ve ben our last game — but now thinking back on it, I would’ve done the same thing. I trust all these girls.”
Nordgaard passed to Lai, who went to the rim in an almost identical fashion as her previous bucket, finishing over Hodgins for the game-winning bucket with three seconds to play.
“We drew it up for me, Peyton or Riley, whoever was open and we all did our best to get open,” Lai said. “Riley couldn’t come off Peyton’s screen very well so I just flashed toward her to give her and outlet. The clock was winding down so I just went to the basket.”
“Watching my sophomore take it to the rim, finish with her left through contact, that’s a pretty great moment,” Nordgaard said.
Lai came off the bench to give Montana State a huge lift. The 6-foot-1 sophomore hit 7-of-11 shots from the floor, scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds.
“She has truly come into her own and a lot of that credit goes to these two (Nordgaard and Ferris),” Binford said. “We have tremendous leadership on this year’s team that really brings the underclassmen along and really instills a lot of confidence in our younger girls. That’s a true testament to our seniors, making them feel confident out there.”
EWU had one more chance with 2.9 seconds left. Phillips, an all-league point guard as a senior, fought through contact to get a shot one step inside the 3-point arc. The try finished short. The No. 4 seed Eagles finish Wendy Schuller’s 16th season at 18-13.
“We are upset right now but Montana State deserves a ton of credit,” Schuller said, tears in her eyes. “They have had a phenomenal year and they have a couple of great seniors on their team. They played the kind of basketball they played from start to finish they played this season. They showed up today and did the same thing.”
Phillips finished her career with 11 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Payne hit two crucial 3-pointers, scored 10 points and played physical defense on Ferris all game long.
Montana State now has one game to secure its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1993. The Bobcats will play the winner of the second semifinal on Friday between sixth-seeded Idaho State and No. 7 seed Portland State. The Bobcats split with both teams during the regular season.
“It will be a lot quicker,” Binford said of the turnaround to prepare for Saturday’s championship. “We will do our scout tonight and get a walk-through in tomorrow. We will do as much as we can to turn this around and get their bodies rested. This time of year, you have played everybody twice. The most important thing is to get their bodies right so they can physically do what we mentally want them to accomplish.”
Ferris has been a standout since her prep days at Twin Bridges. Her senior year there, she scored 42 points in the Class C state championship game but her team lost to Belt. At Montana State, Ferris has earned all sorts of accolades, from claiming the league’s top reserve her sophomore and junior years to hanging back-to-back Big Sky regular-season banners to earning the league’s MVP as a senior. But she is still chasing her first trip to the Big Dance.
“Leave it all out there,” Ferris said. “Show up to play. This is it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.