With a 26-23 halftime lead in the Big Sky Conference Championship game, the Idaho State women’s basketball team was 30 minutes away from punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
A strong second-half performance from Jon Newlee’s Idaho Vandals was too much for the Bengals and Newlee brought home his third conference title in four years, two of which were while Idaho was a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
Despite Newlee’s remarks in the postgame press conference, of which included, “it felt really good to stick it to those ignorant people,” and “the grass is always greener in Moscow,” Idaho State head coach Seton Sobolewski says it is a one-sided rivalry.
“I think maybe there is a rivalry for him,” Sobolewski said. “I am not going to get into a trash talking situation with that guy.”
For the players, playing UofI is simply wanting to beat the in-state team that spoiled their plans for the big dance.
“As a team, we want to beat them a lot more this year because they beat us in the championship game,” said senior guard Freya Newton. “We want to win the game because it is a game,” added redshirt sophomore Grace Kenyon.
To do so, the Bengals will have to do without some key players from last season who graduated at the end of last year.
Anna Policicchio, a 6’2” force on the blocks, was ranked 24th nationally and led the conference and in blocked shots per game (2.7), while breaking ISU’s single-season blocked shots record (88). Tressa Lyman, who was a late add from the volleyball team, came off the bench where she provided significant contributions defensively and on the glass. Apiphany Woods, who did nothing but fill up the stat sheet night in and night out, led the team in points per game (12.7) assists per game (3.1) steals per game (1.3) and minutes per game (31.2).
“Apiphany is tough to replace,” Sobolewski said. “I think we have some youngsters who got better and are moving up and will fill that role.”
Replacing Woods’ numbers will come collectively. Without a set starting five, Sobolewski is counting on depth to carry him back to the top of the conference.
“This year, you are going to see that more than ever,” Sobolewski said, who typically rotates seven to eight players. “I think there are so many people who can play now.”
While replacing Policicchio and Lyman may hurt in the defensive and rebounding department, Sobolewski isn’t worried.
“People always make the assumption that your posts have to be your best rebounders,” Sobolewski said. “That is not always the case.”
Despite losing two players who eclipse the six-foot mark, Newton was second on the team in rebounds per game (6.2) and Kenyon led the team in rebounds two seasons ago with 6.6 per game, prior to her season-ending injury at the beginning of last season.
Kenyon was lost in the preseason after tearing her ACL. The redshirt sophomore is primed for a comeback campaign.
“I feel good,” Kenyon said. “I feel older and more mature. I have worked to become a better athlete than I was before.”
Kenyon is part of a guard-heavy team that may see as many as 11 different players contributing.
Lindsay Brown, Jenna Morch, Sai Tapasa and April Dawson will all see action in the post while guards Kenyon, Isabel Vara de Rey, Brooke Blair, Britanny Kochenderfer, and sophomores Tapasa and Saylair Grandon will see action around the perimeter. Even freshmen, Bianca Thacker and Estefania Ors have impressed their coach to the point that they may be included in the neverending rotation of players.
“Hopefully it gets deeper,” Sobolewski said.
The development of the underclassmen has enhanced this sudden boost in depth. Sophomores Tapasa and Grandon hold the all-time bench-press in ISU women’s basketball history at 165 pounds with Kenyon hot on the trail at 160.
Tapasa and Grandon also hold the squat record at 315 pounds.
“That is mental,” Newton said in her distinctive New Zealand accent.
Newton, now in her senior season is at the core of this team. Along with Kenyon and Blair, Sobolewski is counting on the three to lead the team.
“Everybody has improved,” Sobolewski said. “The people who have taken the biggest steps are [Newton, Kenyon] and Brooke.”
Blair spent her summer with the New Zealand national team and has returned to southeast Idaho with a much-improved jump shot.
“She is improved a lot,” Newton said. “You can tell she spent a lot of time focusing on her fitness and her shooting.”
Although Sobolewski has not announced a starting five, it appears Blair, Newton and Kenyon are locks.
With three guards already in the lineup, Brown, who started 29 games last season would make sense as a starter on the blocks.
The Bengals were picked to finish 6th in the both the preseason coaches and media polls and open Nov. 5 in an exhibition matchup against Alaska-Fairbanks.