RENO, Nevada — When Taylor Pierce and Mikayla Ferenz, found out their Vandals would be playing Portland State, the two sweetest shooters in the Big Sky Conference started licking their chops.
Idaho’s junior backcourt are known around the league as the “Splash Sisters”, a moniker to their similarities to the Golden State Warriors’ peerless All-NBA duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
The Vikings exclusively play 2-3 zone, a strategy that has helped Lynn Kennedy’s team get into the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament for the second straight year. But as Pierce and Ferenz consistently say, shooter’s shoot.
During Friday’s second semifinal, Pierce and Ferenz put on a historic display, combining to hit 15 of Idaho’s 16 3-pointers to lead a shooting barrage that has the dangerous duo and their Vandals playing in the tournament championship game for the second time in three seasons thanks to surviving for a 102-99 win over sixth-seeded Portland State in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
“It’s so great as a coach to be able to have multiple weapons,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “Teams can’t just guard one person and know that one person is going to take the shot. Both of these girls are capable of hitting big shots and they have since they were freshmen. I have all the confidence in the world that one of these two will knock it down.”
Piece drilled her first three 3-pointers, the third giving Idaho a 20-9 lead halfway through a 30-point first quarter, the biggest advantage the Vandals would accumulate despite shooting 56.3 percent after halftime, hitting nine of their 13 tries from beyond the arc in the second half and piling up a single-game tournament record 31 assists to break a record held by the 1985 Vandals. Pierce finished 9-of-15 from beyond the arc and scored 31 points.
“When we found out we were playing them, it’s always exciting to play against a zone but at the same time, they have some pretty long guards who can get out to you so it’s just a matter of getting good looks and my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball,” Pierce said.
“This environment is always really exciting. It’s not hard to bet pumped up.”
The junior from Carlsbad, California hit nine 3-pointers, giving her 130 this season, just the second time a women’s basketball player has hit that many in a single season. Pierce’s nine 3s breaks the single-game tournament record of eight held by Ferenz in the quarterfinals of Idaho’s run to the tournament championship two years ago.
St. Francis guard Jessica Kovatch has hit 138 3-pointers this season. The Red Flash play Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference championship game on Sunday. Pierce also has hit 311 3s in her career, shattering Sac State standout Maranne Johnson’s record of 297.
Newlee first saw Pierce as a ninth-grader in a club tournament in San Diego. He started recruiting her right away. He had no doubt she would morph into one of the most dangerous shooters in college basketball.
“Without a doubt I expected her to be this productive,” Newlee said. “When I saw her play as a ninth grader, I will never forget it, I said, ‘I’m going to get that girl.’ I knew both of them, from the first time I saw them (Pierce and Ferenz), they were on my radar from the ninth grade on. I have not personally recruited anyone as I recruited these two.”
Not to be outdone by her fellow Splash Sister, Ferenz, a first-team All-Big Sky selection who scored 39 points in a win over PSU earlier this season, hit six 3-pointers, including two daggers in the final five minutes to finally end Portland State’s gutsy comeback attempt.
All-Big Sky Geraldine McCorkell converted her final bucket on a 20-point afternoon with 4:29 to play to give Idaho a 90-79 lead. Behind the aggressive and inspired play of All-Big Sky wing Ashley Bolston, the Vikings answered with a 9-0 run of their own to close the gap to 90-88 with 2:17 left.
Pierce halted that run with her ninth and final triple to break Ferenz’s single-game record, then Ferenz buried a corner 3-pointer with a hand in her face as the shot clock buzzer sounded to give Idaho a 96-88 lead with a minute remaining.
After Ferenz’s second dagger — which gave UI the second-most makes from distance in a game in tournament history behind just Sac State’s 19 3-pointers in last season’s first round — Pierce exuberantly cheered on her classmate while Ferenz broke into a huge smile as the two laughed their way down to the court.
“Shooters shoot, that’s what we always say and Taylor and I have shot memories,” Ferenz said. I saw an opportunity, took it and luckily it went in.”
PSU would cut it to four, 98-94, with 17 seocnds left force a turnover and convert another layupt to cut it to two four seconds later. But McCorkell and Pierce each made a pair of free throws to keep the comeback bid at bay.
“We like playing against zones, there’s no question about that,” Newlee said. “We came into the game with a lot of confidence. It was a matter of can we stop them. We didn’t but we got the stops when we needed them and we kept them in front and never let them catch us after we made that run in the second half.”
Portland State’s season ends in the semifinals of the league tournament for the second straight year. The final margin of victory was cut in half when Kylie Jimenez drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer, a symbol of PSU’s bright future.
Jimenez, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, finished the game with 11 points and five assists, joining Bolston (26 points), junior Sidney Rielly (17 points, including a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 98-94), junior Kiana Brown (14 points) and junior Courtney West (12 points) in double figures scoring.
Kennedy’s squad finishes 19-12 in his third season at the helm. Two years after winning two league games, the Vikings are among the Big Sky’s most dangerous teams despite a roster not featuring any seniors.
“We are all coming back so the future is bright,” Brown said. “I’ve never been a part of a team that gets along so well. It’s just been all business, everybody is here, putting in the work. We don’t want it to end but next year, everyone is back and we will be good.”
The Vikings never let their deficit get larger than 11, forged two ties and cut the gap to a single possession 12 times but trailed for all but the first 17 seconds of the game. PSU shot 65 percent in the fourth quarter, 54.5 percent in the second half and 50 percent for the game but did not have quite enough firepower to endure Idaho’s assault from deep.
“I don’t know how many runs we had, 10 or 12, we would fight back but we just could not take the lead,” Kennedy said. “It felt like every time we were close, they would come down and hit a 3 to go ahead by four. We didn’t fall apart and that shows the true character of this team.”
Two years ago, Pierce and Ferenz were rising freshmen on a veteran team led by All-Big Sky seniors Ali Forde and Christina Salvatore. In the first tournament in Reno, Pierce hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Vandals past Weber State in the quarterfinals, then Ferenz banged a then-tournament record eight 3-pointers to pace Idaho past Eastern Washington. In the championship game, Ferenz scored a team high 18 points to help the Vandals advance to the NCAA Tournament for the third time under Newlee.
“Three NCAA Tournaments in the last five years and now we are back in the championship game again,” Newlee said. “That’s validation for how we run our program and the culture of our program. There are a lot of naysayers that said we would never get back here. This team has faced a lot of adversity that people may not know about. I’m very proud of them to step up as a group like they have.”
Two years later, the team belongs to the “Splash Sisters” and so does the spotlight in Reno. The tournament’s No. 2 seed will gun for their 20th win against No. 1 seed Northern Colorado, a 76-68 winner over Idaho State in Friday’s first quarterfinal.
“I think it’s great that the top two seeds are playing in the championship because we are the two best teams,” Newlee said. “It’s nice to have a true 1-2 game. That’s a great team we are going to face tomorrow, there’s no question about that. They have great players and a great coach in Kamie (Ethridge) so hopefully it will be a fantastic ball game.”