BOISE, Idaho — During her time as a spunky pickpocket point guard, Tricia Binford led a Boise State team that set Idaho’s capital city on fire with hoops fever during the mid-1990s.
A quarter century later, Binford is now one of the veteran coaches in the Big Sky Conference. This week, Montana State’s 15th-year head coach brings her most successful team and perhaps the one that most reflects her personal identity back to the town where she first blossomed into a collegiate star.
“I love this town, love this community and I know this community loves basketball,” Binford said during the first Big Sky Tournament in Boise last March. “I think it’s fantastic, a great move. The facility, it feels tighter, more intimate and it’s more enjoyable for fans.”
During her time at BSU, the precocious point guard known back then as Tricia Bader became one of 25 women’s basketball players in the history of the Big Sky Conference to earn first-team all-league honors three times. During her junior year in 1994, she helped the Broncos to their second Big Sky Conference title in three seasons.
That Broncos team flirted with a Top 25 ranking for most of the year and, despite falling in the Big Sky Tournament championship game to Montana, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the last time a team from the Big Sky has been invited to the Big Dance without the league’s auto bid. Those Broncos consistently packed the house at the Pavilion, becoming the first women’s basketball team to sell out the 11,000-seat venue.
In 1999, Binford started her coaching career in Boise while her playing career continued professionally. And in 2001, the 1996 Idaho NCAA Woman of the Year was inducted into the Boise State Hall of Fame.
And the last two years, her life of basketball has come full circle. Binford has brought her Bobcats back to Boise, the place where she first made her name in the college hoops world.
“Trish was a great little point guard,” remembered Montana fourth-year head coach Shannon Schweyen, an All-American as Shannon Cate in 1992 on the Lady Griz team that beat Boise State in the tournament championship game on their home court Binford’s sophomore year.
“I can just remember the battles between here and (former Lady Griz point guard) Kelly Pilcher when they were going at it. Trish was very competitive player and that comes across still in how competitive she is as a coach.”
Binford’s Bobcats enter the tournament this week as the overwhelming favorites to win the neutral site rendezvous after bulldozing the Big Sky during the regular season. The Bobcats destroyed the previous league record of 16 conference wins by going 19-1 in Big Sky play. The Bobcats are riding a 15-game winning streak and have won their league games by an average of more than 18 points per contest.
MSU sewed up the regular-season league title with two full weeks left in the regular season. The Bobcats sealed their third regular-season title in five seasons by taking down Schweyen’s Lady Griz with a 92-78 win over their rivals in Bozeman.
Even with the No.1 seed secured, MSU has continued winning. Montana State scored a season-high 113 points in a 44-point win over Sacramento State less than a week after defeating the Lady Griz for the ninth time in the last 11 rivalry showdowns.
The ‘Cats rallied from a 16-point deficit to post a 73-71 win over Northern Arizona on the afternoon MSU celebrated its stellar senior class that includes five pivotal players. And the Bobcats swept the final road trip of the season by winning at Southern Utah (81-65) and at Northern Colorado (73-63) to bring a 23-6 overall mark to the postseason.
The week in Boise began with Binford earning her second Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year award.
“I knew they would be up there toward the top of the league because the one thing they have that no one else has is all the seniors, the experience,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “The thing she has done such a great job of is getting impact transfers into her program to go with several seniors she developed since they were freshmen and another group of talented freshmen, too.
“Trish has always done a great job with all her teams. She is a heck of a basketball coach. To have that success in Montana, and to be doing it all those years in Bozeman, she gets the most out of her teams. I just think she does a fantastic job.”
In January, Binford was rewarded for her success with a three-year contract extension. In her 15 seasons, MSU has posted three 20-win seasons, won three Big Sky titles and compiled a program-record 261 victories overall. Binford is 157-105 in Big Sky games overall, including 68-26 over the last five seasons.
“The recruiting base, I think she has expanded it and it’s amazing to see the quality of student-athletes she has on this team,” MSU athletic director Leon Costello said in an interview before Binford’s Bobcats hosted the Lady Griz in front of 3,571 in Bozeman in February. “It’s amazing the way she puts the pieces together. A lot of them are four-year recruits, some of them are transfers and how she makes them work together, she knows what she needs on every team and she goes and finds those pieces.”
Binford has coached first-team All-Big Sky selections Alyssa Nelson, Rebecca Mercer, Erica Perry, Rachel Semansky, Katie Bussey and, as of Monday, Fallyn Freije.
Jasmine Hommes in 2016 and Peyton Ferris in 2017 earned Big Sky Player of the Year honors under her watch. Binford helped tutor Sarah Balian to consecutive league Defensive Player of the Year honors. Bussey won Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors in 2009 and All-American honors in 2012.
“I think the biggest thing with Coach Bin’s coaching is the mental part,” said MSU senior guard Oliana Squires, who became the 25th Bobcat to score 1,000 points in her career, including 10 who played for Binford. “She knows how to keep us composed and when I’m having a bad game, she will be able to snap me back into focusing on other things. She is so good with the mental part of the game.”
She’s also recruited some of the league’s best transfers in recent years, including Riley Nordgaard, the 2016 BSC Newcomer of the Year and a second-team all-league pick the following season. Last season, Claire Lundberg earned Newcomer of the Year and might’ve been more decorated had it not been for a season-ending knee injury that ended her career.
This Bobcat squad features transfers Fallyn Freije (North Dakota) and Martha Kuderer, the former the recently anointed MVP of the league despite playing just one season at MSU, the latter a transfer from Seton Hall like Lundberg.
Ferris led Montana State to its first NCAA appearance since 1992 during her seniors year in 2017. Before that, the former Class C dynamo from Twin Bridges was the league’s Top Reserve in 2015 and 2016.
“Even on my visit alone, you come in and she tells you the three goals for the season, what we want to do,” said Blaire Braxton, a senior captain for the Bobcats who will finish her career as one of the program’s all-time leaders in rebounds and blocked shots. “That is something that hasn’t changed since I have been here. When you are at a program for a long time, you are able to set in your expectations and what you want from your players.
“It makes it easy for us when new girls come on trips and they ask us what this team is about. It’s easy to say we know our core values and we know what our coaching staff expects from us. That transparency, that understanding of what she is going to get from us and what she recruited us for and what we build over four years, there’s no question about it.”
Point guards have also blossomed under Binford’s tutelage. And she got an assist for one season from NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, who served as an assistant on Binford’s first Big Sky title team.
John’s daughter, Lindsay, along with her former high school teammate Hannah Caudill each finished in the top eight in program history in assists. Caudill set the MSU record by dishing out 508 dimes, the 12th-most in league history. Perry also piled up 424 assists under Binford’s guidance.
Binford’s teams have also earned Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Team Academic Awards by ranking among the top 12 teams in terms of GPA and classroom achievements six times. She has coached 107 Big Sky All-Academic selections.
“She’s an amazing communicator, she’s an amazing teacher and the culture they have in the locker room is second to none,” Costello said. “You see it on the court. They are having fun. They are smiling. Even when things aren’t going well, they are confident. They are in every game and they have a chance to win every single game they go out and play.”
The old adage is that it’s usually hard for great players to become elite coaches, although the notion is less true when it comes to women’s basketball. Still, jumping the hurdle from elite point guard to elite head coach is a process, and one that Binford has tackled head on while establishing a program with one of the most consistent identities in the Big Sky Conference.
Back when she was Bader, she finished her college career a Boise State-record 448 assists and 271 steals, the second-best in BSU history. Her steals total still ranks ninth in league history and her assist total is 16th. The former Colorado Prep Player of the Year out of Carbondale also scored 1,171 points.
Binford bounced back from a torn ACL that cost her the 1994-1995 season to once again earn first-team all-league honors as a senior in 1995-1996. Her first year playing professionally in the National Women’s Basketball League in Australia, Binford posted one of the truly outrageous stat lines you will ever see: she dropped a quadruple-double that included 67 points, 14 assists, 10 steals and 10 rebounds.
She spent two years in Australia, playing for the Brisbane Blazers, Latrobe Demons and Launceston Tornadoes. In 1998, she was the 31st overall pick in the second-ever WNBA Draft and played for the Utah Starzz and the Cleveland Rockers until retiring from playing in 2002.
Meanwhile in 1999, she started coaching on Trisha Stevens’ staff at her alma mater while still playing in the WNBA. Because the league plays in the summers, she was both a professional player and college coach.
“Trish (Stevens) was how I got into coaching because I was still coaching in the WNBA and she reached out to me because I was doing all my training in my off-seasons in Boise so she just asked in the off-season if I wanted to coach,” Binford said while in Boise on the eve of the opening of the Big Sky Tournament. “I did it for a few years but it felt like it became too much. I felt like I wasn’t giving enough to the players or to finishing off my career.”
Binford took her first year-round assistant coaching job on Raegan Scott-Pebley’s staff at Utah State. The Aggies had not had basketball since 1987 when the program revived in 2003.
When Binford took her first head coaching job in 2005, the Bobcats were overcoming the fallout from the firing of Robin Potera two years earlier. Potera had led the Bobcats to consecutive Big Sky regular-season titles and a berth in the WNIT in 2003. But she was fired on grounds of verbally abusing players following the 2004 season. In one season at the helm, MSU stumbled to a 9-18 record, just Montana State’s third losing record since 1990.
During Binford’s time at Boise State, the Broncos posted a 76-36 record. So a 3-23 record that included a 2-12 mark in league play marked a low point for Binford in her first season as a college head coach.
“The first year, probably the most challenging part was building the foundation and having the student athletes not necessarily get all the fruit of having them be a part of building the culture,” Binford said. “They didn’t get as many of the wins and successes as current players have. But they have gone on to become exceptional women who have made a big difference.
By her third season, Binford helped Montana State to an 18-13 record that included an 11-5 mark in conference play. The Bobcats upset Idaho State in the Big Sky Tournament in Missoula to advance to the championship game before falling to host Montana.
Thus ensued the next mountain Binford had to climb. During her playing career, Montana head coach Robin Selvig was in the first half of what would become a 38-year career decorated with historic success. Selvig led the Lady Griz to wins over Bader and the Broncos in the 1992 and 1994 Big Sky Tournament championship games.
Under Selvig’s guidance, Montana won 21 conference titles, including 17 Big Sky crowns. The Lady Griz won the Big Sky Tournament 18 times, advancing to the NCAA Tournament as often as any team in the West.
The state of Montana has always produced outstanding local talent. For years and years, Selvig used those in-state products to lay the foundation for 865 wins and one of the great home court advantages in all of college basketball.
Selvig won his first 23 games against Montana State and 31 of his first 32 rivalry contests. He also led Montana to victory in 11 of his first 12 times squaring off with Binford and posted a 20-7 record against her overall. Selvig went 65-16 all told against the rival over the hill.
But Binford’s teams put a dent in Selvig’s resume once she got her program fully established. She won for the first time at Dahlberg Arena in February of 2010. The Bobcats won again in Missoula the following season. Binford led MSU to a win over the Lady Griz in the Big Sky Tournament in 2012, another win in Dahlberg in January of 2013 and a victory over UM in March of 2015.
Since Schweyen took over, Montana State is 7-1 against the Lady Griz and MSU has largely dominated the rivalry.
Like many coaches around the league — only Eastern Washington 19th-year head coach Wendy Schueller has been at her position longer, although Newlee has coached 12 total seasons between his time at Idaho State (2002-2008) and upon Idaho rejoining the league in 2014 — Binford credits the standard set by Selvig for challenging the way she wanted to define her own program.
“One of the lessons that all of us, like Wendy Schuller who has been at Eastern Washington for close to 20 years, coaching against someone like Robin Selvig is how important the identity and culture of his program always was,” Binford said. “Those things were so consistent. We did take some lumps early on in my years with who we were going to be not only stylistically but also how do we get a recruiting base?
“You knew exactly the type of style that the Lady Griz were going to have on the floor and what kind of kids were going to represent them. I think we really started to identify that in our program. You are always going to have to adapt to recruiting with each class, who is graduating and who is returning but the identity of who you are should be fairly consistent. We have just tried to keep that clearer each year and do it better each year.”
So much of Selvig’s success came from his consistency and his longevity. He made Dahlberg Arena the place to be in Missoula in the winter and early spring, often times drawing on par or out-drawing Montana’s men’s teams.
Binford has thrived in spreading the love of the game around the Gallatin Valley. Montana State has averaged more than 2,300 fans per game over the last three seasons. Since MSU claimed its first Big Sky title under Binford, MSU has drawn a total of 130,420 fans to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, averaging 1,946 fans per game over a five-year span. MSU has ranked in the top 75 in the country in attendance three years in a row.
Between December 2, 2015 and January 11, 2018, Montana State won 31 straight home games, one of the top streaks in the country. Over the last five seasons, the Bobcats are 55-12 at home.
Montana State’s success both as a women’s basketball program and a university along with the boom the town of Bozeman has undergone have helped Binford’s vision accelerate as her second decade reaches its midpoint.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’ve seen coaches make all sorts of different decisions but for us, being successful, the well being of our players is a priority as is our other priority: loving what you do every day,” Binford said. “There’s something extremely special going on in Bozeman, Montana. When you look at our university, there’s no question that President Waded Cruzado is the person who started all that. And Leon Costello is doing amazing things in our department.
“It’s been such a fun ride but at the same time, I’m going to take it one day at time and coach up our kids and realize there is always going to be roller coasters because there is a lot we want to challenge ourselves to do as we continue to try to take the next step.”
The next step for the Bobcats is chasing another bid to the Big Dance. That quest begins at noon on Tuesday. Montana State plays the winner of No. 8 Northern Colorado and No. 9 Sacramento State, who play in the first game of the Big Sky Tournament at 2:30 p.m. on Monday.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.