This is when things get interesting.
After waiting through the first round of Big Sky tournament games, Idaho will play Montana State in their first game. The Vandals have shown a tendency to send the offense into overdrive this season and this match-up with the Bobcats may be exactly that kind of game.
Montana State (16-14, BSC 9-9) was one of the four conference teams that Idaho (17-12, BSC 13-5) played only once this season. The Vandals took control during the second half of their Feb. 15 match-up and coasted to a 95-77 victory.
Junior guards Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce led the way with 29 and 20 points each while combining for 11-19 3-point field goal shooting. Perhaps most impressively, the team dished out 22 assists and surrendered only four turnovers.
In short, Idaho thrashed the Bobcats on offense to the point that there could be no hint of a comeback. However, that game was almost a month ago. Both teams have gone through some adjustments leading into Wednesday’s game.
Montana State finished the season ninth in the conference for scoring, tallying 66.9 points per game. That figure is the lowest among the remaining teams in the tournament, but it is balanced out by the fact that the Bobcats play solid defense. They allowed an average of 65.9 points per game over the course of the season and their scoring margin of 1.1 per game comes in just below Idaho’s at 1.3. Montana State’s stingy style of play led them to a 50-46 victory over Wyoming back in November, which is notable because that same Wyoming team beat the Vandals in Moscow less than two weeks later.
The Bobcats are going to do their best to keep Idaho’s offense in check and spread the ball around. They had four players average at least 10 points per game this year, led by senior guards Delaney Junkermier and Hannah Caudill. Junkermier poured in 11.5 points per game and was the team’s second-leading rebounder, while Caudill led the team with 4.9 assists per game. In their first game against the Vandals, both players put in fairly average numbers and Montana State scored at an above average clip for the season.
“They have great shooters and senior leadership,” Idaho Head Coach Jon Newlee said in a news release. “They’ve won some championships and they are an experienced group and it will be a battle tomorrow night.”
With all that being said, there isn’t much that suggests a different outcome on Wednesday.
The Vandals came back down to Earth after a nine-game win streak, but they proved that they can prevail in games where everything and nothing goes according to plan. Idaho played their preferred style against Northern Arizona with 50 percent shooting and breakneck pace, and they still won at Southern Utah despite starting 4-16 from the field in the first quarter.
Much has been written about how Pierce and Ferenz can go off to carry the team, but both have performed well recently and against Montana State. Senior post Geraldine McCorkell put together a 10 point, eight rebound and six assist performance against the Bobcats in November, and she could be a key factor in the game if Ferenz or Pierce gets double-teamed and the other has an off shooting night.
While Idaho has been touted as the conference’s most confident shooters, Montana State is not far behind. The Bobcats rank right behind the Vandals in 3-point field goal percentage at 36.1 percent to Idaho’s 36.3.
This game could go a variety of ways, but the most likely is that Idaho will overcome Montana State’s defense leaving the Bobcats in a tough position to catch up. Both teams have established fairly solid identities at this point in the season, making it unlikely that Idaho grinds out a win with only 60 points. If any one of the trio of Ferenz, McCorkell and Pierce gets a hot hand, it should be over for the Bobcats.
Montana State needs absolutely everything to go right in this game to have a chance and Idaho is too experienced and well coached for that to happen.
Jonah Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jonahpbaker