There’s a reason Idaho tapped Jon Newlee to become Idaho’s head women’s basketball coach in 2008 – The postseason.
Prior to Newlee’s arrival in Moscow the Idaho women hadn’t come close to sniffing late-March basketball. Meanwhile, Newlee was in Pocatello leading Idaho State to three NITs and an NCAA Tournament berth in the Big Sky.
Now, Idaho is one game from a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985.
“I know the feeling, we’ll talk about it with this team,” Newlee said, following his teams’ 84-82 semi-final victory over Utah State. “I still remember that feeling, it’s a great feeling, to be able to have this chance and opportunity we’re really grateful for it.”
The saying is that it’s difficult to beat a team three times in a row, as Idaho found out on Thursday when it struggled with a San Jose State team that Idaho dealt with easily in the regular season.
This time it was Utah State struggling with an Idaho team it had beaten twice, including a 31-point thrashing in Logan, Utah on Jan. 31. But the Vandals made the saying prove true this afternoon.
The Vandals survived an onslaught of 37 points on nine 3-point field goals (a WAC Tournament record) from Caldwell, Idaho native Devyn Christensen.
Idaho survived Christensen with an onslaught of their own with 26 points from Australian sophomore Stacey Barr.
“Personally, 26 is one of my better games of the year, to be able to come out in the semi-final is great, to get the win is great for our team,” Barr said. “We played as a team this game instead of back in Logan when we didn’t.”
Christensen set off fireworks again with the Aggies down six, hitting two treys with under 80 seconds remaining, helping Utah State draw even with 11 seconds remaining in the game.
But that opened the stage for Addie Schivo to make the two biggest free throws of the game with under 3 seconds remaining.
“I definitely knew it was going to be a close one, so I knew I possibly could be in that situation,” I was pretty comfortable, I hit the first one so I knew I was good, took my time hitting the second one.”
Nerves didn’t end there, though. Utah State inbounded the ball quickly and got it to their sharp-shooter around the basket, but she fumbled the ball and couldn’t get a shot up. Newlee said they wanted to foul her right away since Idaho had a foul to give.
The path to the WAC championship game came with 11:39 remaining and Idaho trailing Utah State by eight. The Aggies were taking the Vandals downtown at that point, hitting their first six shots from beyond-the-arc. Utah State hit 11-of-18 shots from three in the second.
Idaho went on a 27-10 run over the next eight minutes. Sophomore Stacey Barr spurred the scoring running the ball in transition attacking the basket, but it was also the defense and tenacious offense of senior Jessica Graham, who contributed seven points during Idaho’s run down the stretch.
Graham has battled through a number of knee injuries and surgeries throughout her career, limited her role on the team at times. This afternoon she finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds on 5-of-7 shooting
“I could not have asked for a better situation right now, I love my team and I am so thankful that they were able to help me on this journey, this is all I’ve ever wanted, I’m just so happy I have no words for it,” she said.
Idaho will play the winner of Seattle and La. Tech in the final on March 16 at noon on ESPNU.
The Vandals have never beaten La. Tech as a program, while regular season champion Seattle has taken two games down to the wire to sweep Idaho.
“I think it’s the WAC Championship, whoever is out there we’re just going to have to play our hearts out. They’re both talented, well coached, athletic, got the best team in the league and La. Tech who we’ve never beaten. We’ll just see what happens in this next game, prepare tonight and be ready to go,” Newlee said.