LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The third-seeded Idaho women's basketball team knocked off a higher seeded team for the second day in a row and clinched its first Western Athletic Conference championship and first NCAA tournament berth since 1985 with a 67-64 win over top-seeded Seattle U on Saturday afternoon.
"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," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. "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 sophomore Stacey Barr, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds Saturday, was the tournament MVP, while junior Alyssa Charlston, who had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, also earned a spot on the all-tournament team.
All three Idaho (17-15) victories during the tournament came by just one possession. The Redhawks (20-10) got two chances at potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final seven seconds, but neither attempt threatened to go in and the Vandal bench stormed the court to celebrate its first conference tournament championship since winning the Big Sky in 1985.
"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," Barr said, referring to Idaho's 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."
Idaho trailed by as many as five points in the second half but battled back to build an eight-point lead on two occasions in the final 90 seconds. Seattle U kept the pressure on, however, and forced Idaho into three turnovers in the final 1:06 before the Vandals eventually 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."
Freshman Ali Forde finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, six blocks, two steals and two assists for the Vandals and 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," Newlee said. "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 out-rebounded Idaho 52-38 and 25-6 on the offensive end, leading to a 25-8 advantage in second-chance points. The Redhawks also forced Idaho in 18 turnovers, eight more than they gave up, leading to a 19-9 advantage in points off turnovers. The Vandals, however, held Seattle U to 33.8 percent shooting from the field and the Redhawks went just 11-of-24 from the free throw line. Idaho shot 44.2 percent from the field and out-scored Seattle 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," Newlee said. "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."
Idaho will learn its NCAA tournament fate during the NCAA women's basketball tournament selection show which begins at 4 p.m. (PT) on March 18. Tickets will be available through the University of Idaho ticket office beginning at 5 p.m. on March 18. Individual tickets will be fulfilled by the Vandal Points priority system. Phone orders will be taken from 5-8 p.m. on March 18, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the week.