RENO, Nevada — Weber State’s explosive offense was too much for Idaho State to handle in the two regular-season matchups between the I-15 rivals during the regular season. The Wildcats swept the Bengals, the deciding factor in WSU earning the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky Tournament and ISU being forced to play on the opening day for the third year in a row.
In Wednesday’s second quarterfinal, Idaho State looked out of gas after having to gut out a 59-49 win over last-place Southern Utah in Monday’s opener. And Weber State’s fast-paced offense again looked like it would be too much for the Bengals to handle.
WSU tied a tournament record with 55 first-half points and burst out to a lead of 25 points three minutes into the second half.
But Saylair Grandon and the Bengals remain the queens of Reno.
Idaho State destroyed the tournament record for points in a half by converting 25 of its 35 shot attempts to score 64 points after halftime to push the game into overtime, then rode that momentum through overtime on the way to an unbelievable 113-109 victory to move into the semifinals for the third consecutive year.
“It got to the point where we got aggressive, did not quit, realized the position we were in and at that point, we were down 20 and we knew we had nothing to lose,” Grandon said after bullying her way to 20 of her 28 points after halftime. “The internet always shows you cool videos of how people overcome big deficits and that gives you a little optimism.”
“And we are in Reno. And it’s March.”
In the first year in Reno, Idaho State beat top-seeded Montana on a half-court buzzer beater in the quarterfinal on the way to an appearance in the tournament championship game. Last season in the quarterfinals, Saylair Grandon hit a step-back jump shot as time expired to lift the Bengals to a 60-59 win over third-seeded Northern Colorado on the way to a second straight championship game appearance.
Wednesday, Grandon got to the rim over and over again, scoring 20 points in the second half on 8-of-9 shooting, junior Grace Kenyon scored 17 of her 21 points after halftime, six Bengals total scored in double figures and ISU won its seventh game in three seasons at the Reno Events Center.
“That is incredible post-season basketball right there,” ISU head coach Seton Sobolewski said. “Both teams were just going at it.
“Mentally we went to a different place, we got aggressive and we didn’t want to lose.”
ISU’s point total shatters the previous record of 102 set by Sac State in a first round win over Southern Utah in last year’s tournament. The point total of 232 blows by the previous mark of 197 in Eastern Washington’s 100-97 win over Sac State in the 2016 league tournament. The Bengals made 41 field goals, one short of the tournament record set by Idaho in a win over Montana State in 1984.
Idaho State’s 21 consecutive free throws is a tournament record and would’ve more than doubled the all-time record of 10 set by Montana in 2002 for most free throws made if not for a miss if not for Estafania Ors’ miss from the strip with 14 seconds left in overtime.
“It’s March, we are in Reno, we love it here and we are here to play so we kept playing,” Kenyon said.
Weber State point guard Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman scored 33 points, the fifth-highest single-game total in the history of the tournament, and pushed the pace to the maximum, tricking the deliberate and physical Bengals into a track meet. After Sobolewski accepted that the game was going to be a shootout if he didn’t want it to be a blowout, Idaho State beat the Wildcats at their own game.
Emily Drake hit eight of her first 11 shots and six 3-pointers in the first 32 minutes of the game as the Wildcats made 10 of their first 20 shots from deep. But Sobolewski switched into a zone defense in the second half, causing Weber to miss seven of their 10 attempts from deep and allowing Drake just one field goal in the final 7:32 of regulation and overtime.
“At halftime, the coaches were meeting before we went in the locker room and we are talking about, ‘man, should we try to put them in a zone to try to stop them,” Sobolewski said. “They are just on fire and Emily Drake really paced them, hit incredible shots and they took advantage of every one of our defensive breakdowns.
“Things were not going our way at halftime so we talked about if this is going to be their last game of the season, is this how you want it to go? They made a decision to fight.”
Sobolewski said the team set a goal at halftime to cut the lead to 14 entering the fourth quarter. The Bengals entered the frame trailing by 12 points. Grandon’s 3-pointer cut it to single digits for the first time since early in the first half with 8:54 left in regulation. Dora Goles, who finished with 15 points, scored five straight points to shave the margin to 90-88 with 2:45 left and Ors’ only 3-pointer of the day gave ISU its first lead, 93-92 with 94 seconds left in regulation.
Grandon’s 3-point play with 51 seconds left gave ISU a 96-92 lead and her jumper 12 seconds later made the gap 98-95. Welch-Coleman attempted a game-tying 3pointer with 22 seconds left that missed but Kailie Quinn got a rebound and put-back through contact to tie the score at 98.
“I was just trying to stay and I feel like I would be in less trouble if I missed a layup than pulled a 3,” Grandon said as Sobolewski laughed sitting next to her.”
In overtime, Weber took the early lead in a game that surprisingly had just three lead changes. But ISU stole it back on two Brooke Blair free throws with 2:18 left and held it for good. Two Welch-Coleman free throws cut the ISU lead to 111-109 with two seconds left but an over the top pass to a streaking Goles broke WSU’s press for a layup as the clock expired to secure a spot in the semifinals for the Bengals.
“I’m extremely proud of them to fight back,” Sobolewski said. “Even if we would’ve lost this game by a close margin in overtime, I would’ve been extremely proud of them because we didn’t lay down and die.”
Drake scored 22 of her 31 points in the first half as WSU scored 29 points in the first quarter and took a 55-34 lead into halftime. Larryn Brooks, a graduate transfer from Indiana who earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors, scored 21 points as Weber State finishes 20-10, the second 20-win season in three seasons under seventh-year head coach Bethann Ord.
“It was definitely a tale of two halfs,” Ord said. “We came out screaming, just playing terrific and had a great first half. But as we know, it’s four quarters. Idaho State, they are never going to stop playing hard. In the second half, they just laid it all out there. We didn’t continue to do what we do by attacking.
“They call it March Madness for a reason,” Drake added.
Idaho State moves on to play top-seeded Northern Colorado. The Bears posted their 24th win this season with a 78-69 victory over No. 8 seed Montana in Wednesday’s first quarterfinal. The league champs swept the Bengals during the regular season but ISU has the memory of eliminating the Bears a year ago here in Reno.
“After this win, we realize what we are capable of,” Grandon said.
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.