RENO, Nevada — Idaho State has more experience at the Reno Events Center than any other women’s basketball team in the Big Sky Conference.
The Bengals have won three games to advance to the Big Sky Tournament championship game each of the first two seasons the neutral site tournament have been hosted in the Biggest Little City in the World.
In the third and final year the tournament will be hosted here, the Bengals again found themselves playing in the first round. For the first 10 minutes of action against No. 12 Southern Utah, the fifth-seeded Bengals looked like they’d never played in the environment before.
When Estafania Ors hit her first 3-pointer with 37 seconds left in the first quarter, it opened up the floodgates for the Bengals. Ors would hit two more 3-pointers in the next two minutes to give Idaho State a lead it would not relinquish before hitting a pair of fourth quarter daggers to seal a spot in the quarterfinals for the Bengals.
Ors, the Big Sky’s Top Reserve as a sophomore, scored 15 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, Saylair Grandon scored nine points in the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Bengals doubled up the Thunderbirds in the second quarter and ISU responded with two late runs to post a 59-49 win over Southern Utah in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament here on Monday afternoon.
“We were testing it, feeling it, trying to settle our nerves and trying not to do too much and it ended up us playing really passive,” said Grandon, who finished with 16 points. “Luckily, Stephy (Ors) was there to keep us strong early. Then the rest of our team came around.
“A lot of people have never been to Reno on our team. It’s new to them. Nerves are expected because we want great things for our team.”
Southern Utah has struggled all season — the loss means the Thunderbirds finish 3-27 — but have given ISU all it can handle. One of SUU’s two Big Sky wins came in Cedar City over ISU, 76-70 on January 4.
“We played good enough defense to make it happen,” ISU 10th-year head coach Seton Sobolewski said. “We sputtered at times offensively and we got a little tight and nervous, tentative on offense and Southern Utah made us pay for it. They got us to turn the ball over (16 times) and they made some great plays but I thought we played good enough defense to give us a chance.”
After trailing for most of the first quarter, Idaho State won the second quarter 19-8 to take a 32-19 lead into halftime. Out of the locker room, Southern Utah buckled down, allowing just one made ISU field goal in the first eight minutes of the third quarter to cut the Bengal lead to single digits.
SUU’s Breanu Reid drilled a pull-up jump shot from 17 feet to cut the ISU lead to 38-31 with 3:34 left in the third frame, prompting a heated Sobolewski to call a timeout.
ISU went more than seven minutes between field goals before All-Big Sky point guard Brooke Blair drilled a 3-pointer from the corner to push the advantage to 43-31 with 1:43 left in the period and took a 46-35 lead into the final frame. After Sobolewski’s timeout, Idaho State hit five of its next six shots to build a 50-37 lead with 7:45 to play.
“I just said we had to pick up our intensity level, play a little bit harder,” Sobolewski said. “It’s not always on the defensive end. It’s on the offensive end. Southern Utah did a great job of making some things difficult for us.”
But the young Thunderbirds did not quit. A team that has just two upper classmen — senior Whitney Johnson and Reid, a junior who finished with a team-high 10 points — forged a 9-0 run capped by Reid’s corner 3-pointer to cut the gap to 50-46 with 3:21 left. The SUU run coincided with another cold streak that saw ISU not score for more than five minutes.
“We have a fighter’s mentality so it didn’t matter what shots they hit, we came back focused and ready to fight,” said Johnson, who finished with seven points and nine rebounds.
Both elongated scoreless streaks were answered with explosive runs. When SUU cut it to four, Sobolewski called another impassioned timeout and his team responded once again. Ors hit her first shot since 7:52 in the first half, a corner 3-pointer that sparked the Bengals.
“I was open and the coaches tell me to shoot open shots so I shoot them,” said Ors, a native of Altura, Spain. “When I sit on the bench and the game is already playing, I feel more relaxed so I know when I go to play, I know what I have to do.”
Grace Kenyon, ISU’s All-Big Sky fifth-year junior wing, converted in the paint after grabbing one of her 12 rebounds, Grandon nabbed a steal and scored in transition and Ors hit the dagger to give her 20 points and stretch the lead back to 13, 59-46 with 43 seconds left. Idaho State’s last spurt lasted less than three minutes and secures the Bengals a spot in the quarterfinals for the sixth time in seven years.
ISU advances to Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The Bengals will take on No. 4 Weber State. WSU posted a 76-70 win in Pocatello in the conference opener for both teams in December and beat ISU 84-73 in Ogden on January 27.
“I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason,” Grandon said. “It would’ve been cool for us to get a bye but we didn’t. I think the game was good for us so we wouldn’t start passive against Weber. Our feet are already wet.”
Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer at Skyline Sports (skylinesportsmt.com), a multimedia website providing coverage of the Big Sky Conference. He can be reached at Colter.Nuanez@gmail.com.