Big Sky women's tournament

Vandals endure late run, move past Bobcats into semis


RENO, Nevada — In the second quarterfinal of the Big Sky women’s basketball tournament, Weber State built a 25-point lead before Idaho State stormed back for a 113-109 win in overtime.

Montana State assistant coaches Nate Harris and Julian Assibey sat court-side two seats down from Idaho head coach Jon Newlee and associate head coach Christa Sanford, taking in the duration of the epic rally.

The lesson learned? No lead is safe in Reno.

Behind the sweet shooting of its dynamic junior backcourt of Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, Idaho shot out to a 23-7 lead early in the second quarter and led by at least 12 until the final minute of the third quarter. But Montana State ripped off a 12-2 run to cut Idaho’s lead all the way down to 62-60 with 4:15 remaining.

After Blaire Braxton’s jump hook in the lane closed the gap to one possession, Pierce drilled her seventh 3-pointer but MSU sophomore Oliana Squires, who finished with 14 points, answered with her lone triple of the evening.

From there, Idaho’s first-team All-Big Sky star took over. Ferenz hit a step-back pointer with a hand in her face to keep Idaho’s lead at five with 49 seconds left, then scored six more points to help Idaho secure a spot in the semifinals with a 78-74 win over the defending tournament champions on Wednesday night.

Idaho junior Taylor Pierce

“We talked about it almost every timeout, that this is our game,” Newlee said. “They were making a run, they were coming back and they are a very talented basketball team. We knew that. But we also felt confident ourselves. Every timeout, I could tell that we were going to win this basketball game and that was huge for us.”

Pierce hit four of her first seven 3-point shots to boost UI to a 38-31 lead at halftime. Her sixth 3-pointer gave Idaho a 14-point lead with two minutes left in the third quarter to make her the Big Sky’s all-time leader in triples made with 302 in her three seasons in Moscow. But she missed her next five from beyond the arc to open the door for the Bobcats.

MSU limited Ferenz for most of the first 30 minutes while Pierce carried the scoring load. When Pierce lost her rhythm, Ferenz stepped up, pouring in 21 of her game-high 27 points after halftime, including 14 points during Pierce’s cold spell.

“They did a really good job on me,” Ferenz said. “I felt like I couldn’t get anything in the first half. In the second half, we executed, my teammates set great screens, got me the ball when I was open but MSU had a great comeback.”

MSU senior Delany Junkermier

Montana State won back-to-back Big Sky regular-season championships and claimed its first Big Sky Tournament title since 1993 last March. Big Sky MVPs Jasmine Hommes and Peyton Ferris along with All-Big Sky wing Riley Nordgaard left memorable legacies during one of the best two-year stretches in program history.

Hommes saw her career end on a half-court buzzer beater by Idaho State’s Juliet Jones in the quarterfinals of the first neutral site tournament in Reno two springs ago. Ferris turned her preseason MVP prediction into earning the MVP of the regular and post-season by leading MSU to the NCAA Tournament. Nordgaard set the tone every night out, using her charismatic, fiery attitude to influence the tempo of each game.

A year after those key departures, the Bobcats turned to seniors Hannah Caudill and Delany Junkermier, starters on both championship teams, to lead a rotation that included fellow senior Rebekah Hatchard, three sophomores and three more true freshmen. The group leaves with more wins (77) than any class in MSU history.

“There’s no way this team was going to give up and not fight, especially when you have these three seniors on the floor,” Binford said. “The first time around, Idaho jumped on us early and we weren’t able to get back into that game (a 95-77 loss in Bozeman last month. Today we were able to.”

During the 12-2 run to cut the lead to two Caudill dished out four of her game-high eight assists, adding to her MSU career record. She also scored five of her seven points down the stretch during a career that saw her score 1,000 points and set up more fellow Bobcats than any point guard before her.

Montana State senior Hannah Caudill

“I think it’s really cool what we’ve done to help the program but there’s a bunch of people involved in that,” Caudill said. “I wish it would’ve ended differently but we’ve achieved so much, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anybody else.”

Junkermier hit a pair of daggers to boost Montana State to a 68-58 win over North Dakota in the first round, just two in a career filled with taking and making big shots. On Wednesday, she finished 2-of-11 from the floor but her banked 3-pointer in the final minute helped MSU stay within striking distance.

“Hannah and I came here to develop a program,” Junkermier said. “We came and got the job done. Leaving the program as the winniest team in history is amazing. We will definitely go down in the record books for that. Our attendance is off the chart, second in the Big Sky now. I’m so proud of the fact that I’ve gotten two rings. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Two of the Bobcats’ true freshmen led the charge and left a silver lining that the future is indeed bright. Laura Pranger scored 12 of her team-high 17 points in the second half and Tori Martell hit back-to-back 3s as the Bobcats closed the third quarter down by single digits. Martell scored 10 points in each tournament game this week.

“They were huge contributors to this game, both of them,” Caudill said. “It’s a full team effort, especially when you are playing one of the top teams in the conference so I’m really proud of them. It’s hard to step in and go right into play a big time role, especially in the tournament.’

Montana State freshman Tori Martell

Ferenz finished 9-of-22 from the floor, including 5-of-12 from beyond the arc. Pierce finished 7-of-16 from deep, hitting an array of contested shots with her trademark step-back jump shot. Pierce’s 3-point makes total marked the second-most 3s made in a Big Sky Tourament game, giving her 121 made triples to extend her single-season league record. She also now has 302 3s in her career, obliterating former Montana State star Katie Bussey’s 254 capped in 2011.

“Shoot around felt good today and I came in with the mindset that every shot you take is going to go in,” Pierce said. .”My coaches have so much confidence in me and my teammates as well. Every shot I let go, in my head, is going in so just to see the ball going in helps my confidence for the next games going forward.”

The record for individual 3-pointers in a game is eight by Ferenz in Idaho’s quarterfinal win over rival Eastern Washington in the 2016 Big Sky Tournament during the Vandals’ memorable run to the first Big Sky title won on a neutral site in league history. That night, the Vandals hit 14 3s as a team, at the time the most in a single tournament game. Sac State hit 19 triples last season to break the record but Idaho equaled the mark Wednesday, hitting 14 from beyond the arc in 37 attempts

“I wanted to win and I knew I needed to step up and hit big shots and Montana State stepped up and hit big shots so I took my chance and took it,” Newlee said.

Idaho head coach Jon Newlee/ by Brooks Nuanez

Newlee, who won a Big Sky title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament once out of the Big Sky during his six seasons at Idaho State (2002-2008), helped lead Idaho to two straight Western Athletic Conference Tournament titles before the Vandals returned to the Big Sky in 2014. In his second year back in the league, Newlee rode Ferenz and Pierce, then true freshman, to the tournament title. Judging by Wednesday’s performance, the Vandals look prone to use a similar formula as they chase another bid in the Big Dance.

Idaho will take on the winner of Wednesday’s final quarterfinal between No. 3 Eastern Washington and No. 6 Portland State.

“It’s like the Big Sky where you play Thursday-Saturday so we do have that day of preparation,” Newlee said. “We will treat it just like that.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

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.

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