Big Sky women's tournament

EWU bounces Idaho State; PSU ousts Bobcats, Vandals blow by NAU, UNC whips SUU on the glass


The Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament continued with four quarterfinals games on Tuesday from CenturyLink Arena in Boise. Top-seeded Idaho kicked off the action with a win over No. 8 Northern Arizona. Keep up with all the action here throughout the day.

No. 4 Portland State 68, No. 5 Montana State 56

Facing off against the same opponent less than 72 hours after losing their season finale in Bozeman, Montana State showed that familiarity translated into confidence.

Oliana Squires drilled three 3-pointers in the first quarter and four in the first half. Martha Kuderer hit three of her first four shots from beyond the arc in the first half. Montana State made eight of its first 10 tries from deep against Portland State’s trademark zone.

But the percentages evened out eventually as the Bobcats went ice cold in the second half. Portland State extended its zone, flexed its length and flustered the Bobcats. PSU forced 22 turnovers, caused MSU to miss 10 of its final 12 shots from beyond the arc and allowed just 23 second-half points on the way to a 68-56 win in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament.

“First of all, you have to give Montana State a lot of credit. It’s tough to play a team three times and to play them back-to-back, they came out ready to play,” PSU head coach Lynn Kennedy said. “I thought we played one of our best games (a 68-55 win over MSU) last Saturday at their place…we had to make some adjustments at halftime. I love how our players stepped up. We were a little more aggressive rebounding, which allowed us to get up on the fast break and opened up our offensive sets.

“We had 22 turnovers and we had 21 touches on those turnovers. That was the difference in the game.”

Montana State junior Oliana Squires/ by Brooks Nuanez

Squires’ second 3-pointer gave MSU a 9-3 lead. The Bobcats held an advantage for the next 26 minutes. PSU sophomore point guard Kylie Jimenez hit her second 3-pointer halfway through the third quarter to cut MSU’s lead to 42-41, then long-armed 6-foot-5 center Courtney West converted a bucket in the lane to give Portland State its first lead since 2-0.

“Our length, we had to box out and rebound a lot better,” West said. “Especially when they are shooting 3s and it’s long rebounds. I think we were locking down 3-point shooters, talk to each other and not allowing shots.”

Montana State junior Martha Kuderer drives to the basket/ By Brooks Nuanez

West scored seven straight points during a 14-2 run that helped the Vikings’ lead swell to double digits. Kuderer hit MSU’s first 3-pointer since the opening flurry with 1:47 left in the game. But that triple cut the Viks’ lead to nine.

“We weren’t rotating like we were Saturday and some of that is credit to Montana State because they had just played us and they came back with some different looks,” Kennedy said. “But I liked how we adjusted at halftime, stepped up and started using our length again, keeping them in front on the dribble, really dominating the boards.”

PSU senior All-Big Sky guard Sidney Rielly nailed a 3-pointer on her first attempt of the game. She finished just 2-of-12 from the floor, both makes from beyond the arc during a game that saw the Vikings shoot just 37 percent from the floor. But Rielly hit all 12 of her free throws, part of a 23-of-25 effort from the stripe for the Vikings. Rielly finished with a team-high 18 points. MSU made two of its five free throw attempts.

West, the Big Sky’s Defensive MVP, buoyed Portland State’s offense. She found soft spots against MSU’s zone defense, converting eight of her 11 shots on the way to 17 points and eight rebounds.

Squires hit four of her first five tries from deep but missed the next four. She finished with 20 points but also committed seven of Montana State’s 22 turnovers.

“They got a little further out with their zone and didn’t let us shoot 3s,” Squires said. “We just needed to attack them better.”

Montana State lost its lone senior Claire Lundberg midway through the conference slate. The Seton Hall transfer still earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors. Without its captain and leader, MSU’s four juniors — Squires, Kuderer, Madeline Smith and Blaire Braxton — had to take elevated leadership roles. They helped Montana State finish 16-15, marching the 12th consecutive season MSU avoided a losing record under 14th-year head coach Tricia Binford.

Montana State head coach Tricia Binford/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I’m really proud of this team and how they battled this year,” Binford said. “We had some adverse situations and I thought we found ways to get better as a group and adjust to injuries. I just think there’s a lot more in store for this team.

“I thought the difference in this game was turnovers for us. We weren’t able to take care of the ball as well as we needed to. Portland State did a great job defensively.”

Portland State moves on to face top-seeded Idaho. The Vandals and the Vikings played in one of the most entertaining games in the neutral site history of this tournament last season in Reno. Idaho hit 16 3-pointers in a 102-99 win to move into the tournament championship game. UI used a 36-point second quarter to cruise to a 90-73 win over Northern Arizona in the first quarterfinal on Tuesday.

“Can they miss, ever?” Kennedy jokingly asked. “They are a good team with good shooters, probably the best duo (Taylor Pierce and Mikayla Ferenz) in the conference ever. We have a tough task ahead of us but we are up for the challenge. Typically, we’ve had close games with them for three years and this will be another great game.”


No. 6 Eastern Washington 67, No. 3 Idaho State 65, OT

Idaho State head coach Seton Sobolewski earned the nickname “the King of Reno” during the Big Sky’s three-year stint hosting the league’s tournament in the Biggest Little City in the World.

Not once over the last three seasons did the Bengals earn a first-round bye. But ISU won a total of eight games over the last three years, including playing for the championship twice. Sobolewski’s eight wins are the most since the league moved to a neutral site tournament.

This season, Sobolewski’s senior-laden team — ISU’s four seniors include first-team All-Big Sky forward and sixth-year captain Grace Kenyon along with second-team All-Big Sky point guard Saylair Grandon — posted a 15-5 record in league play to earn the No. 3 seed and the bye that comes with it. The Bengals capped the regular-season by posting an impressive 73-67 win at league champion Idaho on Saturday.

In Tuesday’s final quarterfinal against an Eastern Washington, the bracket-busting Bengals got busted.

Sixth-seeded Eastern Washington missed its first nine 3-pointers less than 24 hours after drilling 14 3s in a first-round win over Weber State. But the Eagles drilled three straight from deep in a fourth quarter and the underdogs used relentless defense to win the final frame of regulation 19-7 before holding on for a 67-65 overtime win for their second win in as many nights.

Sai Tapasa is double-teamed by a pair of Eastern Washington defenders/ by Brooks Nuanez

“We’ve been on the other side of that a couple of times where had the upsets and gone into the tournament and won several games and made it to the championship game a couple of times,” Sobolewski said. “I know how they feel right now. And they deserve it. And I’m happy for them.”

Grandon, who hit two different game-winning shots in the tournament as a sophomore, got a clean look at an 18-footer that would’ve salvaged Idaho State blowing a 15-point lead with 26 seconds left in the third quarter. But Grandon’s game-winner rimmed out, forcing an overtime highlighted by chaos.

“I feel like I could’ve made that,” Grandon said. “I think my team trusted me to. I just wish I would’ve put a little more into it. I think because it was tied, too, we were still optimistic about the rest of the game.”

In OT, EWU senior Violet Kapri Morrow swiped a steal that led to a fast-break layup with 1:33 left to give Eastern a 66-65 lead. Morrow, who scored 16 points in the second half and six more in overtime after going scoreless in the first half, added a free throw for the final margin.

“I was just like, ‘Go for it’ because we don’t have anything to lose,” Morrow said. “So I went for it and I got it.”

“We knew how good (Idaho State) was coming into this and we knew it was going to take a grand effort,” added EWU veteran head coach Wendy Schuller less than a week after her team lost 75-44 to the Bengals.

Idaho State picked apart Eastern’s man defense in building a 20-10 first quarter lead. Schuller switched into a zone. Despite ISU sharpshooter Estafania Ors hitting six 3-pointers on the way to a team-high 18 points, the zone flustered Grandon’s penetration and helped the Eagles chip away.

Kenyon hit six of nine shots, including a collection of baseline jumpers that have become her trademark during her standout career. But a bum ankle caused her to ride a bike every time she wasn’t in the game and labor up and down the court every time she was.

“Grace wasn’t 100 percent and when we play against zones, she is critical,” Sobolewski said. “Against Utah Valley a several years ago, she had a triple-double against their zone. She is one of our main distributors playing against zones. We are usually very good against zones. Without her having her balance that she normally has because of her ankle injury, we weren’t at our best.”

Idaho State has carved out a reputation as the most physical team in the league. ISU used its in your face style to force 21 Eastern turnovers. But Bella Cravens’ gumption on the glass — she finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds — helped EWU earn a 40-34 advantage on the glass.

“Mentally, it was a little tough because we haven’t beat them in the past but we had this fire in us,” Cravens said. “We had to take back what was ours.

“That’s how I’ve always played and that’s the game I like. It was fun.”

Idaho State senior Saylair Grandon/ by Brooks Nuanez

Grandon finished 5-of-15 from the floor and 1-of-7 from deep. But the bulldog point guard still scored 11 points, dished out eight of ISU’s 23 assists and seven rebounds in 42 gritty minutes. Kenyon scored 12 points and post Sai Tapasa chipped in 12 points.

Eastern Washington turned the ball over five times over the last five minutes of regulation and overtime. But Eastern forced six turnovers during that same span and forced 18 turnovers overall. Eastern freshman point guard Jessie McDowell-White, who scored 11 points, led the Eagles with three steals.

Idaho State’s season finishes at 20-10, the third 20-win season in Sobolewski’s 11 seasons at the helm.

Eastern Washington, a 10-win team during the regular-season, advances to take on reigning tournament champion Northern Colorado in Wednesday evening’s semifinals.

“We have as good a chance as anybody and the other thing is we are really smart and we understand that the four of us that are left, everybody is really good and everybody has really good and special players,” Schuller said. “And everybody has seniors who don’t want to be done.”


No. 1 Idaho 90, No. 8 Northern Arizona 73

Taylor Pierce has ripped the nets at CenturyLink Arena before. With more than 1,000 partisan fans showing up in Boise to support one of the great shooting duos in the history of college basketball, Pierce put on a show again.

The first-team All-Big Sky Conference shooting guard put on yet another shooting display. She hit six 3-pointers, tied a career-high with 31 points and paced an Idaho offense that ripped off a 36-point second quarter that paced the top-seeded Vandals to a 90-73 win over Northern Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament.

The explosion included 25 first-half points for pierce as UI built a 56-36 lead at the break. The 31 points tied Pierce’s career high set against Portland State two years ago. Earlier that sophomore season, the sharpshooter poured in 29 points at CenturyLink in a non-conference game.

“I felt good today and I felt good in shoot around this morning, too,” Pierce said. “My teammates did a great job of getting me looks. We were running in transition and that’s the way we love to play. The rim looked pretty massive to me today and I hope it looks the same tomorrow.”

Idaho senior guard Taylor Pierce (14)/by Brooks Nuanez

Pierce’s six 3-pointers give her 138 this season, the second-most in the history of Division I women’s basketball. She needs three more makes to tie Jessica Kovatch’s record of 141 triples set last season. Pierce now has an astounding 456 3-pointers in her career, 31 shy of the all-time NCAA mark held by former Ohio State sniper Kelsey Mitchell.

“She deserves everything she’s earned,” Ferenz said. “She has worked harder than anyone I know. I went and visited her this summer (in Carlsbad, California) and worked out with her and I was exhausted afterward. She deserves all of this.”

Even without the services of third-team All-Big Sky wing Kayleigh Paplow, Regan Schenck and the eighth-seeded Lumberjacks hung tough with the regular-season Big Sky champions early. Coming off a 74-69 victory over Sac State in the first game of the tournament in which Paplow went down with an ankle injury, the Lumberjacks built a 21-20 after the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Pierce, Big Sky MVP Mikayla Ferenz and the Vandals hit the accelerator. With NAU chasing Idaho’s ‘Splash Sisters’ off the 3-point line, the Vandals instead strung together stops and got out in transition on the way to a second quarter explosion.

UI converted 13-of-17 shots in the frame, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. By halftime, Pierce had 25 points, Ferenz had 18 points and the game was all but decided.

“We knew they were going to come out swinging and they played hard,” Ferenz said. “We knew coming out in the second quarter, we had to own the first five minutes. We did, got some easy looks and it gave us momentum.”

A much improved NAU team won four straight games leading up to Tuesday to cap Loree Payne’s second season at the helm on a high note. Schenck, NAU’s fearless freshman point guard, gave a glimpse of the future by scoring 24 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out six assists.

“I’ve never really been on such a big stage and it was fun,” Schenck said. “It makes me super excited for these next three years to see how much better we will get each year.”

NAU’s season ends with a 13-19 record. Schenck, sophomore Jacey Bailey (14 points) and the bulk of the roster returns next season.

“We are super proud of the team and the resilience they showed with Kayleigh going down,” Payne, a native of Havre, Montana, said. “We battled together even though we were short on our lineup. The team played incredibly hard the entire game.

“It’s sad when things come to an end, especially because we were just starting to get our momentum going. But we finished the season strong and the future looks very bright for NAU women’s basketball.”

Idaho post Lizzy Klinker/ by Brooks Nuanez

One of the keys to Idaho’s prolific shooting — the Vandals entered the game averaging a nation-best 11.7 3s per game — is the ability for role players like Natalie and Lizzy Klinker to do the dirty work. The sisters from Fairfield, Montana ran the floor relentlessly, getting rim to rim to help the Vandals dominate the glass and in transition.

Each Klinker scored nine points. Natalie grabbed 13 rebounds while Lizzy grabbed 10 more as UI built a 48-37 advantage on the glass. Idaho also held a 42-20 advantage in the paint as NAU limited the Vandals to nine 3-pointers.

“They bring so much energy and heart and it’s unique,” Newlee said. “Their motors run so high all the time that sometimes you need to bring them down a little bit. They are great rebounders, they have a nose for the ball and they are physically unafraid. They are very athletic and they can get up but more importantly, they want every rebound.

“When that ball goes up, they are like a dog after a bone. They just go get it.”

Pierce scored 17 points in the second quarter alone, helping the top seed turn a tight game into a run away.

The victory helps the Vandals move into Thursday’s semifinals. The Vandals will play the winner of fourth-seeded Portland State and fifth-seeded Montana State.

“These guys will go shower, get some food, bring it back to the arena while my staff and I will stay here and watch this game and see who we play, then go back and break down the film,” Newlee said. “Then we will meet with the team and do a walk through for what we have to do tomorrow.”

No. 2 Northern Colorado 82, No. 10 Southern Utah 50 

Northern Colorado’s Micayla Isenbart chases down a rebound/ by Books Nuanez

On Monday, Southern Utah owned the glass against Montana. The Thunderbirds hustled and pushed their way to 51 rebounds, 14 more than the Lady Griz in the first upset of the Big Sky Tournament in Boise.

Northern Colorado head coach Jenny Huth watched the Thunderbirds’ impressive hustle, especially in snaring 27 offensive rebounds. Huth and her staff harped on winning the battle of the boards in UNC’s quarterfinal against the 10th seed to the point that the Bears’ players chuckled at the insistence on the game plan.

That insistence paid big dividends in Northern Colorado’s quarterfinal against SUU. Behind a Big Sky Tournament single-game record 21 rebounds by Abby Kain, UNC dominated the glass and the game. The Bears nearly doubled Southern Utah’s rebound total, grabbing 49 boards to SUU’s 25 on the way to an 82-50 victory.

“Our biggest thing was we’ve got to rebound,” Huth said. “Our kids were making fun of us during the pre-game talk because we were reiterating it so much. That’s what it takes: locking into the game plan.”

Savannah Smith, last year’s Big Sky regular-season and tournament MVP, missed her first three shots before heating up. She scored 15 points in 10 minutes as UNC built a 18-10 first-quarter lead before winning the second frame 26-7 to take a 44-17 halftime edge.

Smith missed 12 of her 16 attempts from beyond the arc yet still poured in a game-high 23 points. She also dished out seven of UNC’s seven assists as the Bears made 12 3-pointers in a lopsided victory that was never in doubt.

“It’s a little hard when you get off to a good start – sometimes, you get comfortable with a lead – but Coach Jenny talked to us a lot about keeping the momentum going and really coming out and trying to play as hard as we did in the first quarter,” Smith said. “We will need that later in the tournament so it’s good to practice it now.”

Kain dominated the lane on both ends, snaring eight offensive rebounds and drawing a handful of fouls. She scored seven of her nine points at the charity stripe. And her defensive rebounding effort (13 defensive boards) helped limit SUU to seven offensive rebounds, 20 less than the T-Birds registered against Montana.

“Abby is really smart,” Huth said. “She has a great basketball IQ. She understands what you have to take away from a team. Where I’m really proud of her is that she understood here and she was able to do it.”

Northern Colorado senior Savannah Smith/ by Brooks Nuanez

During the middle of the action, Smith used her deft ability to read ball screens to morph into a facilitator. She hit Alexis Chapman with assists on four of Chapman’s five made 3-pointers (in six attempts). Chapman finished with 17 points. Micayla Isenbart hit 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and scored 13 points as the defending Big Sky Tournament champions moved into the semifinals.

In Tracy Sanders’ first season at the helm, Southern Utah won four league games and eight games overall. But the Thunderbirds beat Montana, one of the Big Sky’s most storied programs, twice in the span of the month, including for Sanders’ first postseason win.

“I’m proud of the strides we’ve made,” said Sanders, whose team graduates just senior Breanu Reid. “It’s been a rocky road creating habits and building what we are trying to build. I’m proud of them. We’ve had some huge accomplishments this year. We are a close team both on and off the court. Leading up to this game, we were starting to play really well together. As a coach, that’s what you want: to be playing well at the end of the season and to have your team wanting to play.”

Northern Colorado’s quest for a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament continues on Wednesday night. The Bears take on the winner of Idaho State and Eastern Washington in the final contest of a five-game day Wednesday. Tip is scheduled for 8 p.m.

“We will stay and watch,” Huth said. “We have played each team twice so we are familiar with them. Everyone adds a little bit of a wrinkle here and there. I think we do have a target and we are the hunted so we have to pretend like we are the hunters. We are going to watch this, regather, get some food in and rest.”

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