RENO, Nevada — The Bears came to the Biggest Little City in the World with a target on their backs, a reputation as a finesse team that thrives in regular-season play but cannot compete with the physicality of the post season.
Northern Colorado will depart Reno leaving absolutely no doubt who the best team in the Big Sky is.
Behind the tone setting of league defensive MVP, flawless execution of Kamie Ehtridge’s smooth motion offense, the unflappable toughness of Savannah Scott and an iconic performance by Big Sky MVP Savannah Smith, the Bears punched their first ticket to the Big Dance in program history with a convincing 91-69 victory over second-seeded Idaho in the Big Sky Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon.
“As a player, I got to do this, have these sorts of achievements and successes so watching my players be able to do this and build our program to a national-caliber program is hard to describe,” said Ethridge, who was the starting point guard on Texas’ 1986 national championship team before winning a gold medal with Team USA at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. “Everybody will always look back on this class and know they were the first ones to do this and that’s neat they have that on their resume.”
Smith stamped her regular-season MVP by slashing and shooting her way to the tournament MVP, scoring 34 points and hitting contested shot after contested shot as the Bears ripped a team that has had as much success in neutral site tournaments as anyone in the league.
“I don’t even know if have words for it or if it’s sunk in yet,” Smith said. “I’m still on a high. It just means a lot. With everything we have been through, it’s just crazy to think we have finally made it here.”
The point total for the MVP gives her 78 in the tournament, breaking record of 77 held by Idaho junior Mikayla Ferenz when she led the Vandals to the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
Using her trademark hesitation dribbling, slick one-handed passing and unguardable step-back shooting, Smith reached a zone most athletes only dream of. A day after missing 10 of her 11 3-point attempts in UNC’s semifinal win over Idaho State, Smith hit her first jump shot to spark a record-setting performance.
Smith’s single-game point total was the fifth-most in the history of the tournament.
“The one thing I tried to do was treat this like any other game even though it obviously wasn’t,” Smith said. “For me, nerves can set in. Being around the team, being around them and feeding off their energy really helped me a lot in preparing for this game.”
The Big Sky’s regular-season MVP bookended the award by hitting five of her six 3-point attempts, part of an assault from deep by the Bears on the league’s most explosive outside shooting team. Smith hit crossover 25-footer at the first quarter buzzer to give UNC a 19-16 lead. Northern Colorado would never trail again.
Smith hit three more 3-pointers in the second quarter and her layup in the lane late in the frame helped the Bears take a 43-31 lead to halftime. Idaho did not get consecutive stops one time in the third quarter as the lead swelled to 66-44.
Idaho finally got consecutive stops midway through the fourth quarter and Natalie Klinker’s layup cut the deficit to 70-52 with 6:15 left. But Northern Colorado’s coronation was on full display as Scott took her turn on center stage.
Northern Colorado’s unflappable senior broke into UNC’s starting lineup as a true freshman in Ethridge’s first season at the helm. She played 31 minutes in UNC’s last appearance in the championship game against the Lady Griz in Missoula at the league’s last non-neutral site tournament.
That afternoon, Montana rode the momentum of the home crowd to rally from a 19-point deficit in a 60-49 win to deny a Bears’ team led by all-time great D’Shara Strange an NCAA Tournament berth.
After Idaho cut the gap to 18, Scott drilled back-to-back 3-pointers and converted a layup to push the lead back to 24, the largest of the game for the champions.
“After a timeout, we were up 22 and the coaches said after the next time out, we wanted to be up by 22 or more so that was my mindset,” said Scott, who finished with 17 points. “We knew we couldn’t let up.”
Through the skill of Smith and Scott, the Bears have solidified a reputation as the league’s most efficient offensive team. UNC moves the ball and passes as well as any team in college basketball, a fact that was on display all week.
But the Bears have been vulnerable in the league tournament under Etheridge, losing in their first games in Reno to ultra physical Idaho State two years in a row.
Williams developed into one of the league’s toughest and meanest players, earning Big Sky Defensive MVP honors as the Bears maintained their offensive finesse while transforming into a hard-nosed team that could string together stops and bury opponents.
“”We knew if we let them hit the 3, we were going to lose the game so our goal was to limit the threes and make them shoot twos,” Williams said. “The balance of this tournament was knowing we are a good team but playing like we have something to prove was just our motto for this tournament.”
Idaho head coach Jon Newlee has more experience than any coach in the conference playing on neutral courts in the postseason. He led Idaho to consecutive Western Athletic Conference championships before UI rejoined the league in 2014. Behind the sweet shooting of precocious freshmen Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, the Vandals won the first neutral site tournament in Big Sky history two springs ago.
Led by junior seasons that saw Ferenz and Pierce become the most prolific shooting duo in college basketball history, the Vandals shot their way into the championship game again. Pierce hit seven 3-pointers against defending tournament champion Montana State in the first round, then set a Big Sky tournament record by hitting nine 3-pointers in UI’s semifinal win over Portland State.
Ferenz, who became just the second player in Big Sky history to score more than 700 points in a single season, kept pace with her splash sister, hitting five 3-pointers against MSU and six more against Portland State.
On Saturday, the duo combine to hit six more 3-pointers, giving Pierce 134 triples this season and Ferenz 127, the first set of teammates in Division I history to make more than 100 3s each. But the Bears limited the Vandals to 6-of-16 shooting from deep and hit 14-of 25 3-pointers themselves.
Pierce will enter her senior year as the Big Sky’s all-time leader in 3-pointers with 315. Ferenz, who finished her junior season with 724 points, second only to Idaho State’s Natalie Doma (742) in Big Sky single-season history, already has 1,699 points, the 14th-most in league history. She is 597 points behind Doma.
Idaho’s season ends at 19-13 unless the Vandals receive a post-season berth. Newlee returns Pierce, Ferenz and the majority of the rest of his roster, losing just Geraldine McCorkell, an All-Big Sky forward who scored 20 points in what might’ve been her final career game. Smith, Williams, Portland State junior Ashley Bolston and Idaho State’s Saylair Grandon joined Pierce and Ferenz on the All-Tournament team.
The Bears now wait to find out what team they will dance with in the NCAA Tournament. Northern Colorado has a sterling 26-6 record and an RPI of 33. UNC has a out of conference RPI of 21. ESPN’s Charlie Crème has UNC as an 11-seed in his latest tournament bracket prediction. The Bears could become the first Big Sky champion to earn a single-digit seed since Montana in 1997. Those Lady Griz took a No. 9 seed into the tournament.
“What do they say, way past your pay grade?” Ethridge said. “If you asked all the coaches in our league, they would hope that we could eventually get two teams in, three teams in. If that can’t happen, everyone in our league just doesn’t want to be a 15, a 16-seed. I don’t know how they choose that but I feel like we’ve done something not very many programs have done.
“We are in and we will go wherever and play whoever they choose to put us again and we are going to enjoy the ride as long as we can go. These guys deserve it.”
Regardless of UNC’s national tournament draw, Ethridge’s first recruiting class of Smith, Scott and Williams will close their careers as the most decorated in school history. Williams’ growing pains and serious knee injuries to both Smith and Scott are now a distant memory as the Bears are going dancing.
“This is so amazing,” Scott said. I’ve been crying this whole time and it’s been tears of joy. I’m just so happy and so proud. This is just the best thing ever, honestly.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.