|Progress. Persistence. Paydirt.|
The Idaho women’s basketball team didn’t look like an NCAA-tournament-caliber team in November. It looked more like the group of inexperienced youngsters that it was. Those Vandals -- who used four different starting lineups in seven games, went 1-6 and started a combined total of 23 freshmen and sophomores in the month of November -- were struggling to find their identity. Or maybe they were learning to find their identity.
Coach Jon Newlee put his fifth different starting lineup on the floor to start December with a road swing at UC Irvine and UC Riverside, and the Vandals found some swagger. Idaho dominated both Big West schools, winning by 18 points at Irvine and 14 at Riverside. All of the sudden Idaho had won three of its last five games and was beginning to bounce back from its 0-4 start to the season. But Idaho was heading into the toughest three-game swing of the season, visiting Washington and Gonzaga before hosting eventual regular-season Western Athletic Conference champion Seattle U, and the Vandals weren’t quite ready for the challenge. The team fell by 14 at Washington before being blown out at Gonzaga. Idaho had its best shooting night of the season in the WAC-opener against Seattle U, but it was all undone by a season-high 31 turnovers in a 76-71 loss. With a 3-9 record entering January, the Vandals felt they were underachieving, and had yet to show their true potential.
"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."
As the calendar turned, so did the results. The Vandals started 2013 with a much-needed 17-point win over San Jose State. After failing to out-score Utah State in a 91-85 home loss, the Vandals were tasked with hitting the road for the first time in WAC play. By this time, Idaho was up for the challenge. The Vandals erased a halftime deficit for the first time in almost a year in a 68-60 win at Denver, then grinded out a 57-51 win at New Mexico State. After falling to Louisiana Tech, which has had Idaho’s number literally forever – going 17-0 all-time against the Vandals – Idaho won six of its next seven games to get to. 500 for the first time all season at 12-12, and more importantly, 9-4 in WAC play.
"It was a pretty difficult start to the season, but to our credit we picked it and started playing as a team and getting those wins," sophomore guard Stacey Barr said.
By the time mid-February rolled around, the Vandals found their rhythm with a starting five that included three true freshmen. Led by freshman Christina Salvatore and Barr, the team ranked among the nation’s top-10 in 3-point shooting, but could easily counter the long-ball with the inside scoring and rebounding provided by junior Alyssa Charlston and freshman Ali Forde. Freshman Connie Ballestero, one of the WAC’s most efficient point guards, ran the show and the Vandals had all the confidence in the world.
"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."
But back-to-back heartbreakers -- two-point losses at UT Arlington and LA Tech -- brought the Vandals back down to earth. All of the sudden with just three regular season games left, Idaho could fall as far as the No. 5 seed in the looming WAC tournament. Idaho, however, never let that happen. The Vandals used a pair of double-digit wins over UTSA and Texas State to lock up the No. 3 seed heading into the regular season finale, a road test against a Seattle U team that was playing for the regular-season WAC title. Idaho battled for 40 minutes but a mid-range jumper from Seattle with less than two seconds left proved to be the difference in a 55-53 loss that left the Vandals more hungry than disappointed.
Idaho’s last three losses had each come by two points, and the Vandals were ready to flip that script. Eager to prove it could beat the top two teams in the WAC – Utah State and Seattle U – Idaho was nearly upset in the conference quarterfinals against San Jose State. But Krissy Karr took matters into her own hands in the game’s final possession, hitting a buzzer-beating layup as time expired to lift Idaho to a 57-55 victory and send the team to its second-consecutive WAC semifinals. There, Idaho faced Utah State, which handed Idaho its second-largest defeat of the season, an 81-50 loss in Logan, Utah. But Idaho brought everything it had, overcoming a 26-percent first-half shooting performance and a 37-point outburst from Utah State’s Devyn Christensen to escape with an 84-82 win.
With its two-point loss in the regular season finale just one week in the rear-view mirror, Idaho was poised for another shot at Seattle U, this time with the WAC tournament title on the line. Idaho’s offense was in-sync, shooting 44 percent from the field, and its defense was intense, holding Seattle U to 34 percent shooting while blocking nine shots, and the Vandals clawed their way to a 67-64 win to punch the programs first ticket to the Big Dance since 1985.
Barr, who averaged 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game, shot 60.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point range in the tournament, was the tournament MVP. Charlston also earned a spot on the all-tournament team as the Vandals cut down the nets at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Idaho’s reward for its WAC tournament championship? A trip to Storrs, Conn., to face No 3 nationally and No. 1 seeded Connecticut. The Vandals and Huskies will square off at 10:30 a.m. (PT) on March 23 in a nationally televised (ESPN2) game."We're playing our best basketball of the year right now," Newlee said. “We went down to Las Vegas on a mission and our team really came together during that week and won three really close games with all the pressure on. The way we performed down there was something we've been talking about all year. We finished playing our best basketball and that's what you want to do."