Big Sky Conference

Northern Colorado survives ISU comeback, moves into championship


RENO, Nevada — The Bears survived to advance and earned some revenge in the process but the celebration suddenly became sullen as Dora Goles lay on the Reno Events Center floor sobbing in pain.

Top-seeded Northern Colorado used a nearly flawless first half to build a commanding 15-point lead but in typical Idaho State fashion, the toughest team the Big Sky Tournament’s three-year stint here fought until the final buzzer.

Idaho State shot 58 percent after halftime to cut what grew to an 18-point lead to two possessions down the stretch in the fourth quarter but the Bears hit eight of 10 free throws in the final 34 seconds to secure a 73-66 win and a spot in Saturday afternoon’s championship game.

Northern Colorado guard Savannah Smith (10)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “Kiwi (Kianna Williams), Sav (Savannah Scott) and I, we are the main ones who have been waiting for this day for awhile. When we learned we were going to play Idaho State, I was a little bit nervous and ready. We are so happy to get this win.”

Big Sky Conference MVP Savannah Smith largely struggled shooting the ball but her toughness and ability to control the pace proved to the difference. The junior poured in 23 points, including scoring eight of UNC’s first 19 as the Bears built a 12-point lead by the end of the first quarter and pouring in Northern Colorado’s first seven after halftime as the lead reached its largest of the afternoon.

The Bengals came storming back, just like the Bears knew they would. ISU rallied from a 25-point second-half deficit in a 113-109 overtime win over Weber State on Wednesday. Idaho State has won quarterfinal games each of the three years in thrilling fashion, including knocking Northern Colorado out of the tournament on a Saylair Grandon buzzer-beater last year.

This time around, the Bears’ improved toughness combined with their efficient execution and the tone-setting toughness of Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year Kianna Williams gives Northern Colorado a chance to punch its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in program history.

Idaho State guard Dora Goles (5) rises up with Northern Colorado forwards Krystal Leger-Walker (1) and Kianna Williams (33) defending/by Brooks Nuanez

“Just a typical Idaho State game,” UNC head coach Kamie Ehtridge said. “They own this tournament. I think they play up to such a high level. We played really well in the first half and it was great to get a lead. I probably hurt our team a little bit with the way we played and let them get back into the game but I loved the makeup of our team that can withstand runs, mistakes and misses and still find a way to win.”

The final 55 seconds of the game included 15 possessions, as Idaho State’s fearless point guard from Split, Croatia got to the rim over and over again to off-set Northern Colorado’s attempts to salt the win away at the charity stripe. Goles scored 13 of her 15 points after halftime, including six in the final 34 seconds.

Goles’ last bucket with 12 seconds left shaved the margin to 71-66. UNC senior Savannah Scott missed a free throw to open the door. Then heartbreak struck.

The quick, savvy point guard drove to her right and planted off her left knee, only to have it buckle violently. The precocious sophomore fell to the ground in agony, her shriek echoing throughout the cavernous events center.

As Idaho State’s coaches and trainers attended to her, Saylair Grandon untucked her jersey and covered her face. Grace Kenyon and Brooke Blair both wiped tears from their eyes, the reality of the injury along with another Cinderella run falling short of the championship game for the first time in three seasons.

Northern Colorado guard Savannah Scott (2)/by Brooks Nuanez

“We are just trying to stay positive, give good thoughts to Dora,” Kenyon said. “We are all moving on.”

Despite the physical, competitive game and the joy accompanying the victory, even the Bears were emotionally affected by Goles’ clear physical agony.

“It hurts all of us,” Ethridge said. “In women’s basketball, we certainly know that moment when someone hurts a knee. Some of us have been through it and understand this is the worst time for a player to hurt her, knee, that moment, the next couple of days.

“We wish her all the best for a great recovery. It’s a difficult thing to watch someone goes down with an injury, someone that competes like she does.”

The Bengals won three games in five days to earn spots in the tournament championship game each of the last two years. In 2016, ISU knocked out top-seeded Montana State in the quarterfinals on a half-court buzzer-beater. Last season, the Bengals upset the Bears on Grandon’s last-second shot.

This week, ISU outlasted Southern Utah in the first round, then put together an unforgettable rally to oust Weber State. On Friday, the Bengals simply ran out of magic.

“Especially because we came off of Wednesday’s game down, we tried to stay confident and optimistic in ourselves,” Grandon said. “Northern Colorado just finished the game like a No. 1 seed.”

Idaho State guard Brooke Blair (12) defended by Kianna Williams (33)/by Brooks Nuanez

ISU has defined itself by its unwavering physicality, rebounding better than anyone in the Big Sky and refusing to let teams pull away because of a grinding style of defense. On Friday, Williams set the tone and showed the rest of the league that UNC is no longer the finesse team it has been labeled as in three seasons under Kamie Ethridge, the recently named Big Sky Coach of the Year.

“Throughout the second half of our conference, the main thing was not being so soft,” Williams said. “In the years past, we have been known to be a finesse team. Now we bring the physicality.”

Williams came up with huge defensive plays throughout the game, none bigger than a steal in the corner that led to a timeout and halted a Bengals run that had the lead down to five, 65-60 with 37 seconds left.

“I was really upset they got the o-board and I didn’t want to leave it to chance,” Williams said. “If I had the opportunity to steal, I was going to get the ball.”

Williams finished with seven steals, three blocks, seven rebounds and four assists plus scored 11 of her 13 points after halftime, hitting three of four free throws in the final 34 seconds to boost the Bears into the title contest.

Northern Colorado forward Kianna Williams (33)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I can’t replace her,” Ethridge said. “There’s 100 ways we can’t replace her. She is just phenomenal on defense. I wish people could see her four years ago because she has changed her entire being. She’s not just a great defensive player, she’s a great leader, a great competitor.

“She’s mean and she’s angry and she plays that way. That’s what the great ones do.”

Idaho State’s season ends with a 21-11 record, a mark that might actually ensure the team could keep playing. Sobolewski said the team will explore it’s post-season options. If it is Idaho State’s last game, the Bengals lose just All-Big Sky point guard Brooke Blair from an otherwise loaded roster that will be headlined by the return of Kenyon, a second-team All-Big Sky pick, as well as Grandon, one of the most powerful penetrators in the league.

“We had some fun, exciting wins,” Sobolewski said. “To beat Washington at Washington, to win at Hawaii, the win that game two days ago against a very good Weber team, that’s fun. We have a lot to be proud of. I think it’s hard right now for our players to feel that way but it’s just been a fantastic year. The future looks really bright.”

Northern Colorado guard Savannah Smith (10)/by Brooks Nuanez

Northern Colorado’s epic run continues as the Bears move to 25-6 with one obstacle remaining before the Big Dance. The Bears enter the title game with an RPI of 37 and designs of getting the league’s highest seed in a generation. UNC will play the winner of No. 2 Idaho and No. 6 Portland State.

“We will watch this next game, then we will watch the boys’ game (against Montana), then it’s film and prepare,” Smith said. “We will be ready.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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