Big Sky women's tournament

Vandals dominate second half against MSU, move into championship game


BOISE, Idaho — In the first half during Wednesday’s nightcap, the precocious Bobcats played with enthusiastic abandon that has trademarked their vibrant run to the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.

Following the break, Beyonce Bea found her all-conference form once again, Natalie Klinker asserted her force and the Vandals ran away with a victory that sets up a much-anticipated in-state battle for the BSC women’s basketball championship on Friday.

The Montana State women’s basketball team defied expectations and conventional wisdom this season. A team that set a Big Sky Conference record with 19 league victories last season graduated five seniors, including league MVP Fallyn Freije. MSU entered this season as the youngest team in the United States.

Yet the Bobcats found themselves in the semifinals of this week’s Big Sky Tournament against an Idaho team that has been the lone thorn in MSU’s side the last few seasons.

Montana State raced to a 38-32 halftime lead during a well-played, clean first half. Out of the break, Idaho seized control. Bea, a first-team All-Big Sky forward, poured in 12 points in the third quarter, including eight during a 12-0 spurt that helped Idaho take a lead it would not relinquish.

Bea finished with 21 points and eight rebounds as the second-seeded Vandals punched a ticket in Friday’s championship game against top-seeded and rival Idaho State. The Bengals defeated No. 4 Northern Colorado 65-55 in Wednesday’s first semifinal, part of a five-game day of hoops for the Big Sky women’s and men’s tournaments.

“This win means a lot to me and this team,” Bea said. “We put in a lot of work to get to this point and with last year (Idaho advanced to the championship game before the tournament was cancelled) was disappointing.

Idaho forward Beyonce Be a (5) posts up Montana State forward Taylor Janssen (24)/by Brooks Nuanez

“Last year, we didn’t get the chance to play. We all wanted to make this one count and we are super excited to get to play for the championship.”

Klinker, a bruising post who played high school hoops in Fairfield, Montana, powered her way to 19 points and 11 rebounds. Her four offensive rebounds proved to be key for a Vandal squad that shot 58.6 percent after halftime and won the battle on the glass, 42-32.

Idaho is into the championship game despite a variety of hurdles. Before the second-to-last week of the regular season, the Vandals had a variety of Covid-19 issues that ended up causing the cancellation of its series with MSU. Those complications trickled into the tournament.

Gina Marxen, an All-Big Sky selection each of the last three years, had not played since the cancellations. Neither has Haile Christopher, who earlier this week earned Big Sky Reserve of the Year honors.

And in the first half of Wednesday’s semi, first-team All-Big Sky wing Gabi Harrington twisted her already ailing right ankle, hindering the slashing senior for the rest of the game.

None of it mattered. Idaho seized the momentum with confidence, just like they have perennially since rejoining the Big Sky in 2014. Over the last seven seasons, Idaho has advanced to the tournament championship three times and to the semifinals five times.

Idaho guard Sydney Gandy (14) drives vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez

“That was a tough, physical basketball game and you would expect nothing less from the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds going at it to get to the championship game,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “We talked after halftime about responding and bowing up and matching their physicality if that’s the way the game was going to be.

“I’m just so proud of these guys the way they responded in the second half, especially in that third quarter when we just locked them down.”

In the absence of those standouts, true freshman Sydney Gandy poured in 19 points. That came on the heels of a 23-point performance in Tuesday’s quarterfinal win over Northern Arizona.

Those factors caused Montana State’s season to come to an abrupt ending after winning 13 league games and 17 games overall.

“I’m really proud of this squad and what they have overcome,” Montana State 16th-year head coach Tricia Binford said. “We’ve done it with a very young group. Sometimes, you can want it so badly, it takes you out of your game because it’s hard to settle in.”


In a clean, back-and-forth first half, MSU’s lone senior drilled a pair of huge shots to help Montana State gain control, if only for a minute. Tori Martell drilled consecutive 3-pointers with less than two minutes left in the first half to give Montana State a 35-29 lead.

Montana State guard Tori Martell (33) shoots a three vs. Idaho/by Brooks Nuanez

“They were trying to pound us into the ground,” Newlee said. “Every entry pass, we were getting pounded. We were just getting pounded. I said, ‘You gotta bow up, you just gotta bow up and you gotta match it. If you want to get to the championship game, it could go two ways; you have to bow up and match it or you are going to lose.

“My kids stepped up and said we aren’t going to take any kind of pounding. We are going to give it back. I loved the way we responded.”

The second-team All-Big Sky southpaw finished with 14 points.

“I think we went into a stretch where things weren’t dropping and we panicked a little bit and that swung into their momentum,” Martell said. “We let it spiral a little bit when we weren’t hitting our shots. I panicked even, too.

“It’s crazy it’s been four years. It’s been so much fun and having Coach Bin being our coach has been so amazing. The team dynamic has changed so much the last four years and that’s been incredible. The team this year has been so close and so fun. It’s been a fun four years.”

Martell and sophomore point guard Darian White each scored 11 points in the first half. White finished with 15 points and six rebounds. The first-team All-Big Sky pick and BSC Defensive Player of the Year will headline a roster that returns everyone but Martell.

“We have to learn from our mistakes,” White said. “We are a young team but we are experienced now so we have to learn from what we did wrong and carry on with what the coaches want for us.”

Montana State guard Darian White (2) blasts through contact vs. Idaho/by Brooks Nuanez

The Vandals advance to play Idaho State, the outright Big Sky regular-season champions. ISU went 15-2 in league play with one of the losses coming to the Vandals in Moscow.

Since the league moved to a neutral site tournament, Newlee is 8-3. The only coach who has been better has been Idaho State head coach Seton Sobolewski, who is 11-5. Newlee has won the tournament in 2016 and lost in the championship in 2018.

“Last year, we beat them in the semis and that was a great game for us,” Klinker said. “I think we match up well with them. We are fired up and ready for them.”

“We are going to bring that same energy and effort as tonight. We are going to have to focus because they are a great team,” Newlee added. They have a lot of firepower. They are going to be physical, we know that. We have to match that. But they are also very skilled. We are going to have to be very focused on the game plan.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Montana State guard Darian White (2) turns the corner vs. Idaho/by Brooks Nuanez
Idaho guard Allison Kirby (20) enters the ball into the post vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State forward Lexi Deden (21) shoots a mid range jumper vs. Idaho/by Brooks Nuanez
Idaho forward Natalie Klinker (42) finds space in the post vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State head coach Tricia Binford works a huddle vs. Idaho/by Brooks Nuanez

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

Recommended for you