RENO, NV – Montana State showed the heart of a defending champion down the stretch. But they couldn’t overcome a slow start.
Two-seed Idaho held off the comeback attempt in the final minutes to win a Big Sky quarterfinal over the seven-seed Bobcats, 78-74.
Montana State closed to within two points with 4:15 left when Tori Martell drove and found Blaire Braxton in the paint for two. That marked the closest the Cats had come since early in the first quarter.
With two and a half minutes left, Taylor Pierce answered with her seventh three-pointer of the game for Idaho, pushing the lead back to five. Oliana Squires immediately hit another three-pointer for Montana State, cutting the lead to two. But Idaho’s other great shooting guard, Mikayla Ferenz hit an off-balance three-pointer with less than a minute left to push the lead back to five. And the Cats could never dig completely out of the hole.
Pierce and Ferenz did the most damage against MSU. Pierce finished with 21 points, all from beyond the arc. Ferenz scored 21 in the second half alone to finish with a game-high 27 points.
Montana State got a big boost off the bench from a couple freshmen. Laura Pranger led the Cats with 17 points in only 14 minutes on the floor. Martell played her second strong game in Reno, scoring 10 points. Squires finished with 14 points. But none of the Bobcat trio of senior guards could break through against the Vandals. Hannah Caudill and Rebekah Hatchard each scored 10 points. Delaney Junkermier only managed seven on 2/11 shooting.
Poor shooting for the Cats, and hot early shooting for the Vandals led to the hole MSU could never dig out of. Montana State only hit three of their first 19 shots. Idaho hit 10 of their first 19, including five three-pointers. The Vandals led 25-9 early in the second quarter, but that was their largest lead of the game.
Junkermier scored a putback at the buzzer of the first half to cut the Idaho lead to 38-31. MSU fell behind by 15 points again in the third, but cut the led down to nine heading into the fourth quarter.
Montana State went on an 8-0 run from 7:19 to 4:15 left in the game, capped off by the Braxton bucket that cut the lead to two. MSU did have one possession to tie or take the lead, but turned the ball over. Then Pierce and Ferenz hit their most clutch shots in a game full of them.
Pranger did make the game a little more interesting at the end, making a three-pointer with one second left to cut the lead back down to two. But Montana State fouled Geraldine McCorkell with .3 seconds left, and she hit both free throws to provide the final score.
The win moves Idaho into the Big Sky semifinals on Friday afternoon.
The loss ends Montana State’s season. A year after a Big Sky title and a trip to the NCAA tournament, the Cats could never match that level of play. But head coach Tricia Binford definitely felt this season was a positive step for the program.
“16-15 was not the record that we all thought we were capable of. And I think we could have been more consistent,” admitted Binford. “We did have a lot of youth. But I also think the youth grew up a lot this year based on the experience that they had around them and examples they got to learn from . So even though some people thought we were rebuilding, we believed. We’ve been the best team on the floor at nights. It just wasn’t our night.”