BOISE, Idaho — Any time Taylor Pierce passed up an open look when she was a freshman, Idaho head coach Jon Newlee would pull her from the game.
By the time Pierce reached the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament last season, her green light was as incandescent as any player in America. In one of the most entertaining games in the tournament’s neutral site history, Pierce hit nine 3-pointers and Idaho raced past Portland State 103-99, punching a ticket in the championship game for the second time in three seasons.
On Wednesday evening, the Vandals and the Vikings faced off in a rematch with a championship bid on the line. With each Pierce hoisted 3-pointer against PSU’s stifling zone defense, Idaho’s nightmare became more of a reality.
Exactly 368 days after Idaho’s signature win, Ashley Bolston and the Vikings flummoxed Pierce and her fellow “Splash Sister” Mikayla Ferenz like no other team in the Big Sky Conference has during their historic and memorable senior seasons.
On Tuesday, Pierce hit six 3-pointers and tied a career high with 31 points in a 90-73 win over Northern Arizona to give the Vandals a berth in the semis. Wednesday, Pierce never found the mark as the combination of Bolston, sophomore point guard Kylie Jimenez, senior wing Sydney Rielly and freshman Desirae Hansen contested every one of her 12 3-point heaves.
A player with 138 3-pointers this season and 456 in her unparalleled career went 0-of-12 from beyond the arc. Ferenz, the conference’s all-time leading scorer, finished 5-of-16 from the floor and 3-of-9 from deep.
Portland State held the nation’s top 3-point shooting team to 6-of-29 from distance on the way to a convincing 75-59 victory to secure a place in Friday’s Big Sky Tournament championship game.
“Those are two of the best shooters in conference history and we had to play a perfect game and we did,” PSU head coach Lynn Kennedy said. “Our team did a phenomenal job. Assistant coaches came up with a great game plan and the players executed. It was perfect, absolutely perfect to guard those two players the way they did.”
With each miss by Pierce or Ferenz, the Vikings’ defense gained momentum and the Portland State players gained confidence. Bolston, one of the most physically talented players the league has seen, served as the head of the snake in the zone and the aggressor offensively as PSU seemed to get stronger as time wore on.
The 6-foot-2 Bolston got to the rim with ease, particularly in the second half. PSU turned a 32-28 halftime lead into a 50-42 lead at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth frame, with the “Splash Sisters” continually drawing iron, Portland State’s lead swelled to as many as 18 points.
“We know they are two great shooters so we had to fly around with our hands up, talk to each other and know where they were at at all times,” Bolston said. “As long as we were grabbing rebounds and fast-breaking, we stayed ahead.”
Kennedy’s zone extended to the point where the “honey hole” in the middle was wide open. Hailey Christopher was able to capitalize, hitting 7-of-10, mostly mid-range jump shots, during a 16-point outing. Lizzy Klinker also had one of her best offensive games, shooting 9-of-16 and hitting two late 3s during a 21-point outing.
But the story of the night was the inability for Pierce, Ferenz and an Idaho 3-point shooting attack that averaged nearly 12 makes per game this season to figure out the long, athletic reach of PSU’s zone.
“We’ve shot very well against their zone but unfortunately, we didn’t shoot it as well today,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “…I just hate it for these guys to go out. We really thought we’d be playing in the NCAA Tournament this year. I’ve been on both ends of this and won championships. Now we’ve lost here a few times. Frankly, it sucks. It just sucks. I really feel for these guys.
“But what I told them in the locker room, it doesn’t take away from what we did 16 times better than anybody in this league. We won this league. We had 16 wins in the league, better than anybody else. We are the regular-season champions, which is my mind is harder to do than get hot and win a couple of games in the conference tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament. I’m really proud of our season.”
Courtney West, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and the top lane clogger in the conference, hauled in 11 rebounds to help Portland State earn a 44-33 edge on the glass. And Jimenez, PSU’s precocious point guard, came up in the clutch, hitting four 3-pointers and all eight of her free throws during a 22-point outing.
All eight of Jimenez’s free throws came in the final three minutes as the Vikings negated any potential comeback by the regular-season league champions. Her fourth 3-pointer gave PSU a 63-51 lead. The advantage never dipped below double digits again.
“Once we got the lead, there was no going back,” Jimenez said. “Other games, we’ve lost this year, we’ve had a lead and gave it away. I think we’ve learned from that.”
Pierce and Ferenz are two of just six women in Division I history to make more than 400 3-pointers in their careers. Last season, Pierce hit 137 3-pointers, the second-most in the country and the second-most in the history of college women’s hoops. Jessica Kovatch from St. Francis hit 141 last season.
During her junior year, Ferenz hit 129 3s, the third-most in the country and in NCAA history.
This season, the duo combined to hit 244 3-pointers, giving them 861 combined triples in their illustrious careers. But any additions to the marks will come in the WNIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. The Vandals receive the auto bid to the WNIT as the regular-season champions. But their Big Sky careers are abruptly over.
“We wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament but we are lucky we get a chance to still play,” Ferenz said. “That’s what we’ve worked so hard for in the regular-season is to have a chance to play after the conference season. I would’ve loved to go to the NCAA Tournament but we are so grateful we get to go play another week.
“Might as well go win it now that we are in it.”
Portland State has won six tournament games over the last three seasons. Now the Vikings are in the championship game for the first time this decade. The Vikings take on the winner of defending champion Northern Colorado, the second seed, and No. 6 Eastern Washington.
“The players believe,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a process to get to this point. These players believe. They believe we can win. They put in the work. From off-season to summer to fall, just like every team, but we really put in the work this year. We have been in the semis back-to-back years. We wanted more. We weren’t done. We still want to keep playing.”