Eastern Washington freshman Jessica McDowell-White officially closed an era in Big Sky women’s basketball with one unexpected, ingenious, game-winning play, throwing the ball off the back of Northern Colorado’s Savannah Smith and converting an and-1 layup with three seconds left to give the Eagles a 59-57 win Wednesday in the conference tournament semifinals.
“We obviously drew up a play to run,” McDowell-White said. “I knew exactly what we wanted, but at the end of the day, I knew we needed a bucket. Her (Smith) back was to me, and there was an overload to one side, so I just saw an opening, and threw it off her. I just knew I had to make the bucket in the end.”
The play gave the upstart, No. 6 seed Eagles their third win in three days and sent them to the conference championship, where they’ll play No. 4 Portland State at 1 p.m. Friday for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It electrified the end of a defensive struggle that saw the two teams combine to shoot under 35 percent.
And it ended the career of Smith, one of the greatest scorers in Big Sky history and part of a Big Sky senior class that also included Idaho’s Mikayla Ferenz, the conference’s all-time leading scorer, and Taylor Pierce, perhaps the greatest shooter in conference history.
“I really couldn’t be more proud of this young lady,” Northern Colorado coach Jenny Huth said about Smith in a tearful postgame press conference. “She’s made her mark in this league, she’s made her mark in this community. … Honestly, it doesn’t matter how many points she scores, what records she breaks. This woman is an unbelievable young woman.”
The Idaho duo was eliminated just a few hours before Smith in a 75-59 loss to Portland State, combining for just 15 points in one of the least productive joint shooting nights of their storied careers.
After that, Big Sky observers were guessing that Smith, the Big Sky MVP a year ago, would likely return things to their normal order, and for a quarter, it looked like she would.
The point guard scored 15 of her team’s 19 points in the first 10 minutes with an incandescent shooting exhibition.
The display left Eastern barely hanging in the game, down 19-8.
From there, though, things changed. Eastern did a better job denying Smith the ball, and the UNC star began to misfire on the opportunities she did have.
“The first half, we didn’t totally buy in and do everything that we had talked about,” Eastern Washington coach Wendy Schuller said. “We made some adjustments at halftime, and you saw it on the floor, especially the defensive end.”
Smith made just one field goal after the first quarter and finished the game 6-of-28 from the field with 20 points, and Northern Colorado scored just 16 points over the second and third quarters combined.
The Bears shot just 30 percent from the field overall, and 19 percent from 3.
Eastern struggled shooting as well, but led 36-35 after three quarters, setting up a blockbuster finish.
Northern Colorado continued to miss shots at a crazy pace, but the Bears, led by Ali Meyer and Abby Kain inside, got 23 offensive rebounds to Eastern Washington’s seven, affording them a huge advantage in extra possessions.
Down five with 1:04 to go, Smith made two free throws and Alexis Chapman made a layup. That cut Eastern’s lead to 56-55, and it stayed that way until there were seven seconds left.
After Smith forced a turnover on an Eastern inbounds pass, she drove baseline left and missed badly, but point guard Krystal Leger-Walker grabbed the rebound and converted the putback to give Northern Colorado a one-point lead.
“They covered it pretty well,” Huth said. “We had a plan for if they went man, but honestly, we just stayed with the play, and that’s what you want to do. I told them, we had 11 seconds, we’ve got to get an o-board if we miss. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Eastern Washington brought the ball back down, and a kick violation gave them the ball under the basket, setting up McDowell-White’s heroic play.
Leger-Walker’s desperate pass to midcourt was intercepted, setting off a celebration for an Eastern team that had won just 10 games in the regular season — and a program that hadn’t made a Big Sky championship game in 31 years.
“It has been a long time,” Schuller said. “I’ve been here for a long time now (18 seasons) and have had a lot of players that have made this program what it is. I was getting texts last night from players that played for me 10, 15 years ago. … We’re a family and so this is not just for these guys, these guys are fighting for Eastern Washington women’s basketball and everything that comes with it.”
No way. Jessi McDowell-White throws it off Savannah Smith, gets it, converts, and 1 AND fouls Smith out pic.twitter.com/ELsVAghodK
— Skyline Sports (@SkylineSportsMT) March 14, 2019