BOISE, Idaho — The top seeds at the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament have suffered heartbreaking losses often since the league moved its postseason to a neutral site in 2016.
The top-seeded Montana State women lost on a half-court buzzer beater in the first quarterfinal of the 2016 tournament in Reno, Nevada. Top-seeded Idaho suffered a disheartening upset when the most prolific shooting back-court in league history couldn’t find the mark against No. 4 Portland State last season.
The MSU women entered this tournament as the overwhelming favorite after winning a league-record 19 games. Montana State rode a 15-game winning streak that included several eye-popping victories of 30 points or more.
Following Northern Colorado’s 79-61 win over Sacramento State in the first game of the tournament Monday afternoon, UNC senior Ali Meyer said, “Why not us? Why can’t we be the ones to take them out?”
The Bears played like a team with an upset on their minds, the Bobcats played tight and the first quarterfinal on Tuesday came down to the wire.
But Montana State has Darian White. And the rest of the Big Sky does not.
Playing in her hometown for the first time as a collegian, White proved why she earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year and showed why she certainly should’ve been more than an honorable mention all-league selection.
The aggressive, unflappable 5-foot-6 point guard out of Mountain View High scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and had the crucial steal of the game to help Montana State survive UNC’s upset bid by hanging on for a 67-62 victory.
“All I can say is I’m glad she’s on our team,” MSU 15th-year head coach Tricia Binford said. “She is a heck of a competitor. This kid is a winner and the ball is in her hands for a reason. And our defense starts with her. She makes plays and she is truly special.”
Northern Colorado senior Abby Kain grabbed a rebound off a missed free throw, converted the put-back through contact and completed the old-fashioned 3-point play to cut the MSU lead to 61-60 with two minutes, 25 seconds left to play. The teams traded empty possessions before UNC had the ball with 1:27 left still trailing by one.
But White, one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference, snared her second steal, the biggest one in a game the Bobcats forced 22 UNC turnovers. That snare with 1:11 left led to a pair of free throws and white converted both. The confident rookie made five of her six free throw attempts in the final 71 seconds of the game to help MSU move into the semifinals Wednesday evening.
“Playing in my hometown is really fun but we are here for a business trip, not to just have fun at home so getting this done is our main focus,” White said.
“We have the first-game jitters out. That will help us next game.”
Northern Colorado’s Jasmine Gayles finished in the lane with 15 seconds left, bringing her point total to 21 points and cutting the MSU lead to 65-62. But White and MSU senior Oliana Squires each hit free throws to ensure MSU would not fall victim to a premature and heartbreaking loss like they did after Binford’s first Big Sky regular-season championship season four years ago.
“I thought Northern Colorado played a heck of a game,” said Binford, who earned Big Sky Coach of the Year for the second time in her career. “I think they are playing their best basketball right now and I think they did a great job. We had to grind out this game today.
“It’s March Madness. That’s what you have to do. Our kids found a way and I’m really proud to coach our team.”
UNC junior Alexis Chapman hit three of her four 3-pointers in the first half as the Bears put pressure on the Bobcats from the outset. MSU never mounted a run of more than seven points and never led by more than seven. But the Bobcats kept the upper hand for the last 28 minutes of the game even if by the slightest of margins.
Gayles added seven rebounds to her team-high point total, Chapman scored 14 points, Micayla Isenbart grabbed 10 rebound in a game UNC out-rebounded the Bobcats 40-36 but the youthful Bears fell short again. A team that lost Big Sky legend Savannah Smith and had a roster featuring six freshmen finishes its season 12-17 overall
“As coach and as a team, you have to mold and gel and rebuild and I thought our team did a fantastic job of trying to bridge the gap between a championship and this big freshman class,” UNC second-year head coach Jenny Huth said. “Here they are, coming in, we are coming off a championship (in 2018) and they are expecting to win. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of seniors.
“Sometimes, seniors are jerks. And ours are not. They are super positive, teaching the freshmen things. I think everybody was together. At the end of the day, we were always together.”
Squires struggled shooting the ball and forced several shots down the stretch but still managed to score 13 points, including a crucial 3-pointer late in the third quarter off a nice pass from White.
Fallyn Freije, the Big Sky Player of the Year, showed why, gutting her way to 15 points despite plenty of extra attention from the stout, strong Bears front-court players. Freije also battled her way to 12 rebounds to help her team advance.
“Yesterday was fun for us to watch and knowing we were going to get the winner of that first game and to be in Boise, with the atmosphere, all the fans that made the trip, family and friends, the band comes, that’s what March is about,” Freije said. “We just had to focus and lock in and not feel the pressure.”
Montana State will now prepare to face an unknown opponent. The Bobcats will play the winner of No. 4 Montana and No. 5 Northern Arizona, who played the second game of the tournament Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a quick turn around but we do get a little longer recover with an evening game tomorrow,” Binford said. “We have to take care our bodies but this team has been exceptional at that all year long. We will get some nutrition in them, watch the second game so we know who our matchup is going to be then we will head to the hotel and get our scouts ready for them.”