It’s always a good feeling when comfortable wins are business as usual.
This weekend’s matchup with Eastern Washington is a unique opportunity to quantify the streak that Idaho has been on. If the chips fall right, the Vandals could be in first place in the conference after a 4-7 start to the year. The Eagles were the last team to beat Idaho nearly a month ago.
Idaho (12-10, BSC 8-3) is at the tricky part of a winning streak. It is likely to end eventually, but the team has to establish that these successful outbursts can be sustained as habits. Their tough matchup with regional rivals at Eastern Washington (12-11, BSC 7-4) will be a tough opportunity to prove those new habits.
“It’s going to be a really tough rivalry game,” Associate Head Coach Christa Sanford said. “It will be nice to get an extra opportunity to scout and look ahead with only the one game this weekend, but it is a very important one. Eastern Washington always gives us a fight and we’re hoping to avenge that earlier loss in the season.”
If Idaho manages to pull off a seventh straight win, they will only need two losses from Weber State and one from Northern Colorado to move into first place.
To put Idaho’s rise into perspective, the Vandals were in eighth place in the conference as recently as January 18th.
Much of that rise can be attributed to Idaho’s leadership.
Junior guards Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce along with senior post Geraldine McCorkell have torched opponents in new and exciting ways. Ferenz has continued her torrid pace with 22.2 points per game, good for best in the conference and tied for eighth in the nation.
Pierce caught fire in her last two games, sinking six 3-pointers in each. McCorkell recorded a career high 34 points against North Dakota on January 27th. She has even been able to cede some of her minutes to the younger post players in blowouts like the game against Sacramento State.
“All the energy is focused on the next game and that just happens to be Eastern,” Sanford said. “Sure, we’ve got one of the best scorers in the nation, but she doesn’t care if she scores eight points as long as we win. We can move the ball any given night and anybody can lead us in points or assists or rebounds. This team cares about winning above all else.”
Those Vandal leaders will have their work cut out for them.
Eastern Washington is a feisty team that forces a lot of turnovers. They also have the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week in senior forward Delaney Hodgins. Hodgins is right behind Ferenz, averaging the second most points per game in the conference with 20.8. She also just broke Eastern Washington’s all-time scoring record, which was previously held by her older sister. Hodgins needs only 94 more points to reach 2,000 in her career and become only the fourth Big Sky player ever to reach such a height.
But, the Vandals have some important factors going for them.
Idaho has proven that it is able to bounce back and adjust to previous losses. The Vandals have already avenged their earlier losses to Northern Colorado and Sacramento State. Idaho even managed to blow out Sacramento State on their home court and the home-and-home split with Northern Colorado proved that this team can compete with the best in the conference.
The game will also be the first in a double header, with the women’s team playing at 5 p.m. and the men playing at 7:30 p.m. The regional rivalry and extra benefit of two games for the price of one should bring out more fans and provide a hostile atmosphere for the Eagles.
The Vandals need only one of the trio of Ferenz, Pierce, and McCorkell to be on fire in order to be successful. The bench has developed enough to prove that there is more than enough support to give the starters rest when necessary.
“We try to do a good job of getting the team rest when we can, and this team is hungry to win,” Sanford said. “We have a shot to secure a first round bye and we’re going to take advantage of that.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonahpbaker