Sports Editor Emeritus
After holding a 26-23 lead at halftime, the Idaho State Bengals fell victim to a dominating second half by the Idaho Vandals, who would hold on to win the Big Sky women’s basketball championship 67-55 on Saturday afternoon at the Reno Events Center.
The Vandals excelled from 3-point land all day, knocking down 10-18 triples.
It was much the opposite story for ISU, which at one point was 2-15 from downtown, eventually finishing 6-27 thanks to some late success on the perimeter.
In the second half the Bengals went 8-33 (24.2 percent) from the field. For the game ISU went 20-66 (30.3 percent).
“We got some good open looks. I thought we got a little panicky,” said ISU Head Coach Seton Sobolewski. “We were not making shots and Idaho is starting to get a lead and then we tried to get it all back in one miraculous play and you know it doesn’t work that way, you chip at it and our shot selection got a little bit rough late. It’s tough to make shots when you are that tired.”
Idaho used a 7-2 run to begin the first half and a 17-4 run to start the second to put the Bengals in a hole too big to crawl out of.
Those runs at the beginning of each half were sparked on the defensive end.
“I think Ali Forde did a really good job defensively for them,” said Bengal senior Anna Policicchio. “She made some big plays, some steals at the beginning of the third, just kind of discouraged us a little bit, but I think we came back alright from it. I think she made a big difference for them and she had a really good game. She came ready to play.”
In the second quarter ISU outscored Idaho 12-6, but the inability to form a large lead proved to be the dagger, as the Vandals came out hot in half number two.
“We dug pretty deep in the ‘ole playbook today and were getting good stuff out of it, but really the key to me was our defensive effort the entire game and in particular that stretch in the third quarter and halfway through the fourth where they started throwing in all the threes,” said Idaho Head Coach Jon Newlee. “I thought we just did a fantastic job of getting stops, getting to their shooters and rebounding the basketball, which is something we did not do when we lost in Pocatello.”
The Bengals were led by the senior duo of Policicchio and Apiphany Woods. Policicchio had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks, while Woods tallied 12 points. Freya Newton had 7, Juliet Jones 6, Linday Brown 5, Saylair Grandon 4, Tressa Lyman and Brooke Blair each had 3 to round out the scoring.
Brown paced ISU on the boards with 14, while Forde hauled in 13 for Idaho.
Free throws did not fall for the majority of the game for Idaho, although Karlee Wilson would step up late, making 11-12 on the day. The rest of the team went a combined 4-13, keeping ISU in it till the end.
For ISU, the loss concludes what was a remarkable end of the season, including knocking off tournament favorite and #1 seed Montana State in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
“Five games in eight days is tough and we showed a lot of guts and toughness to take it this far,” said Sobolewski. “I think it caught up with us a little bit, especially in the third quarter with our shooting. All those legs are gone at this point, especially with quick turnaround, but regardless I thought we played really hard and I am very proud of our team and think they are amazing representatives of Idaho State, Pocatello and southeast Idaho and we are all very proud of them and this has just been an incredible run.”
The run included defeats of Northern Colorado, Montana State and North Dakota in the conference tournament this week.
“I think it’s amazing, it proves that anyone can do anything, just working hard and believing in yourself,” said Policicchio.
Policicchio, a senior who exits ISU as the single season leader for blocks in a campaign with 88, culminates her career, along with fellow senior Woods, as members of one of the most successful groups in Bengal history on the hardwood.
“It’s my last game with the Bengals and it sucks to lose in the championship game cause you are so close, but I have enjoyed every moment of it,” said Policicchio. “It has been a crazy end to the season and I couldn’t be more thankful and blessed to have been with these ladies.”
After a season in which there had been so many close losses, the potential came together at the end of the year.
“It’s been tough, you know you lose those close games. You lose six games by a total of 12 points and we very easily could have won three to all six of those and maybe put [ourselves] in a different seed where we wouldn’t have to play as much. But you know, regardless, I’m extremely proud of our team to keep getting better,” stated Sobolewski.
He credits the resiliency of his group this year for the success.
“They could have lost and got discouraged or got selfish with each other and they didn’t. They just kept working hard and got better, got better and then we got pretty good towards the end of the season. Beat Northern Colorado, then beat the #1 seed [Montana State] and then beat a very good North Dakota team. If we have a little bit more legs at the end of this one maybe it is different. But I think we have turned into a pretty good team at the end of this year and I think it’s just our players sticking with it and believing in themselves and believing in the system.”
The loss ends the season for the Bengals, while with the victory the Vandals will advance further in March Madness to the NCAA Tournament set to begin later next week.