RENO, Nevada — Portland State provides one of the most unique matchups in the Big Sky. The Vikings are the longest limbed team in the league and they employ a 2-3 zone from opening tip to final buzzer, deflecting passes and flustering opposing shooters like no one else in the conference.
The one vulnerability of PSU’s defensive style comes when opponents relentlessly crash the offensive glass. Northern Arizona did just that in the opening round of the Big Sky Tournament here in the fourth and final game of the first day on Monday night.
NAU secured 23 offensive rebounds and won the battle of the boards overall with the taller, more athletic Vikings. It didn’t matter. The Lumberjacks had no answer for Sidney Rielly and no consistency shooting over the outstretched arms of PSU’s ferocious zone.
Rielly, a third-team All-Big Sky selection for the second year in a row, proved why, hitting seven of her first 10 shots en rout to 24 points to lead the Vikings to a 77-61 victory in the only lopsided result of the day.
“The first game a lot of times is the toughest game and we knew NAU is capable team,” PSU third-year head coach Lynn Kennedy said after leading the Vikings to their third tournament win in the last two years. “…First quarter was tough. I thought we came out and you saw some nerves. Second quarter, we locked in defensively.”
Portland State limited the Lumberjacks to 29 percent shooting 22-for-76 including 8-of-28 from beyond the arc) for the only victory of more than 10 points in the four games played on Monday. The key was a second quarter in which the Vikings posted a 21-5 advantage and held the Lumberjacks to 2-of-18 shooting.
“We were lazy in the first quarter I thought but really responded in the second quarter, got some block outs and you can see with our fast break after that, we can get out in the open court,” Kennedy said after leading PSU to its 18th win this season.
“Any time you can get a 15, 16, 17, 18 point lead in a tournament environment, you are going to take it.”
In Loree Payne’s first season at the helm for NAU, the Lumberjacks endured losing streaks of six and eight games but also had a stretch in February where the team won three of four. The effort of the team was never in question, a point accentuated by Northern Arizona’s 54-47 advantage on the glass that included 23 offensive rebounds.
“I thought we played a really solid game, we just couldn’t make shots,” said Payne, who finished her first season 7-24. “First quarter, third quarter, fourth quarters were identical scores but that second quarter hurt us.
“Any time there’s a team that plays zone, offensive rebounding is a great opportunity for us. I’m proud of how we crashed the glass and the resiliency they showed.”
Northern Arizona got up 25 shots in the first quarter and crashed the glass aggressively, helping the frame end in a 16-16 tie. In the second quarter, the Vikings made nearly half their shots while limiting NAU to two made field goals.
NAU started the second half on an 8-0 run to cut the lead to single digits. Portland State answered by scoring 22 points the rest of the quarter to maintain a 16-point lead entering the last quarter.
Portland State made just nine of its 30 shots (30 percent) after intermission but salted the game away to move into the quarterfinals by hitting 19-of-23 at the free throw line.
With 6-foot-2 athletic junior Ashley Bolston, a second-team All-Big Sky pick, roaming the top of the 2-3 zone and 6-foot-4 Courtney West patrolling the paint in the middle, the Vikings present mismatches across the league. NAU did not shoot well in any quarter — even in the tied first frame, the ‘Jacks made just seven of their 25 field goal attempts — but the difference was the hustle NAU used to get second chances in the lane.
In the second quarter, PSU buckled down and built a lead that sustained for the duration of the game. NAU lead for most of the first quarter but never led again once Portland State assumed the advantage. “Our defensive intensity rose,” PSU junior Kiana Brown said after finishing with 17 points. “W were talking more. It was just a ripple effect from there.”
Rielly scored six points during a spurt that helped the Viks extend the lead back to double digits in the third quarter and scored seven points in the final frame to help the No. 6 seed punch a ticket in the quarterfinals for the second straight season. Her old-fashioned 3-point play with 8:29 left gave Portand State its largest lead, 66-43.
“Starting off the conference tournament there is always a little bit of nerves, which showed in the first quarter,” said Rielly, a former transfer from Santa Clara. “Once we worked through that, we got into our usual flow.”
NAU senior Kenna McDavis hit three of her four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and senior Olivia Lucero buried one of her two triples in the final frame as each capped their careers with 14-point efforts. Lucero added seven rebounds and eight assists.
Portland State will take on third-seeded Eastern Washington in the late quarterfinal on Wednesday evening. PSU beat EWU 75-60 in Portland on January 4 but lost in Cheney 64-57 a month later. The Eagles are led by senior Delaney Hodgins, the third-leading scorer in the history of the Big Sky who scored a league single-game record 46 points in her last outing, a 98-83 win over NAU.
“I think Hodgins is one of the best players in the league if not the best player,” Kennedy said. “The best 15-foot jump shot shooter in the league, she can get to the basket. She’s going to be a handful. We have to pick up our intensity. I like where we are as a team.
“We’ve been playing really well the last month. We just have to keep getting prepared and take it one game at a time.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.