Two consecutive wins over higher seeded teams in two days may seem like a tough feat, but the third-seeded Idaho women’s basketball team did just that on Saturday afternoon, beating top-seeded Seattle U 67-64 to claim their first Western Athletic Conference championship and first NCAA tournament berth since 1985.
"Survive and advance has certainly been our motto in this tournament and we did it all the way till the end, and it's a great feeling," said Idaho coach Jon Newlee. "I'm so happy for my players and I'm so happy for my staff. I feel that I have the greatest staff in America and our players have just worked their tails off to get to this moment and it's fantastic, it's a great feeling."
Idaho’s efforts were powered by sophomore Stacey Barr, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds (most of which came in the second half), was named the tournament MVP, while junior Alyssa Charlston added 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and earned herself a place on the all-tournament team.
All three Idaho wins during the tournament came down to a single possession. The Redhawks had two opportunities at potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final seconds, but neither attempt threatened to go in and the Vandal bench stormed the court to celebrate the school’s first conference tournament championship since 1985 when the Lady Vandals won the Big Sky tournament.
"It was a pretty difficult start to the season, but to our credit we picked it up towards the end of the season and started playing as a team and getting those wins," said Barr, referring to Idaho's less than stellar 3-9 start to the season. "To go to the tournament is huge and to win this one is unbelievable. There are no words for it."
Trailing by as much as five points in the second half, the Lady Vandals fought back to gain an eight-point lead on two occasions in the final 90 seconds of the game. The Redhawks kept the pressure on, forcing Idaho into three turnovers in that time frame before the Lady Vandals escaped with the victory.
"What has impressed me about this team all year is its resiliency," Newlee said. "When things start to go a little bad they are digging down. That's something they've learned over the course of the year. Basketball is going to be up and down and it's not going to be perfect. I always tell them that as long as you play as hard as you can all the time; good things are going to happen to you. I'm sure they're going to remember that."
Outside of Barr, freshman Ali Forde finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, six blocks, two steals and two assists for Idaho while fellow freshman Connie Ballestero had 10 points and three assists. Those two, along with freshman Christina Salvatore, have started a combined 78 games this season for Idaho.
"I'm going to tell you, our freshmen, our younger players are very even-keeled on the basketball floor," said Newlee. "I've never seen a younger group that was like that. They don't panic. Very rarely have I seen panic on the faces of our young players."
Seattle U dominated the boards, out-rebounding Idaho 52-38 and 25-6 on the offensive end, leading to a 25-8 advantage for the Redhawks in second-chance points. Seattle U also forced Idaho to turn over the ball 18 times, eight more than they gave up, leading to a 19-9 advantage in points off of turnovers. The Lady Vandals were able to hold the Redhawks to 33.8 percent shooting from the field, while Seattle U shot just 11-of-24 from the free throw line. Idaho was able to shoot 44.2 percent from the field and out-scored Seattle U in the paint 34-30.
"When things went a little south there, I told them if you want to win this game then you've got to push back and you've got to rebound," said Newlee. "Every single one of them sat there buying in and said that's what we're going to do. You can see a lot of the numbers aren't in our favor, but ultimately that final number is."
On Monday, it was announced that Idaho would enter the NCAA 2013 Women’s Basketball Tournament as the 16th seed and would have a first round match-up with perennial power-house the University of Connecticut.
"I've seen them play on TV, that's for sure," Newlee said of UCONN. "I know they're big and physical and athletic, and they can shoot. Obviously we're going to have to bring our best effort out there to Storrs on Saturday."
Idaho will take on UConn this Saturday in Storrs, Conn at 1:30 pm EST with a live broadcast on ESPN2.