It was a matchup that possessed all the necessary ingredients for a potential Big Sky playoff preview.
On one side of the court, the Idaho women’s basketball team needed a victory to keep its dreams of a first-round tournament bye alive. On the other, North Dakota hoped to extend a seven-game win streak and stay atop the conference standings.
When the dust finally settled Saturday at the Cowan Spectrum, the Vandals walked away with a 74-61 win to remain in contention for a top seed in the Big Sky tournament next month.
“Those guys are so hard to guard,” Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. “Travis (Brewster) does a great job with that group and all of the weapons they have. They’re really hard to plan for, but I feel like our team did great with one day of preparation to go in and execute the game plan.”
Sophomore guard Mikayla Ferenz opened the game for Idaho (13-11 overall, 8-5 Big Sky) with seven points in the first quarter to help the Vandals secure an early 10-2 lead.
North Dakota (16-8 overall, 11-2 Big Sky) buckled down on defense in the following period, holding Idaho to a 1-of-9 stretch from the field. But a 23 percent shooting performance in the quarter hindered the Fighting Hawks’ chance at a comeback.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game, and we had to match their physicality from the start,” senior point guard Karlee Wilson said. “I think we were able to do that today.”
The highlight of the game came midway through the second quarter, when sophomore Taylor Pierce led a fast break attack for the Vandals.
After coming to a sudden stop at the arc, Pierce swiveled around and fired a pass to Ferenz near the midcourt logo. Ferenz took a moment to survey the perimeter before launching a deep 3-pointer to give Idaho a 31-20 lead.
“I never even notice how deep I am,” Ferenz said. “Which is probably a good thing, because if I realized how deep I was then I wouldn’t shoot it.”
The Vandals dominated the paint in the first half, winning the rebounding battle 28-18 to carry an 11-point advantage into the break.
“We knew with North Dakota that we would have to win that battle or be close,” Newlee said. “I thought we really challenged our team to get on the glass after Thursday night and they took it to heart.”
Ferenz led all scorers with 15 points, while junior post Geraldine McCorkell battled through an 0-for-5 cold streak to pull in eight boards for Idaho.
“That’s something that we talked with (McCorkell) specifically — that we needed more from her off the glass offensively and defensively rebounding” Newlee said.
The Vandals continued to add to their lead in the third period, as Wilson spotted Ferenz on a backdoor cut for an easy layup to give her team a 41-26 lead.
“When they are pressed up on our shooters so much, it definitely opens up lanes, especially when they’re not helping anybody,” Wilson said. “It was wide open for us and we were finishing at the rim really well today.”
Wilson scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half, including a perfect 8-for-8 performance from the free throw line. Ferenz added 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting, while McCorkell collected 12 rebounds.
“It’s nice when Karlee gets the recognition because she does all the little stuff for us that people don’t really notice or that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” Ferenz said.
Idaho concludes its three-game home stretch when the team hosts Eastern Washington 2 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Cowan Spectrum.
Josh Grissom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GoshJrissom