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Northern Colorado lights up Idaho, wins Big Sky women’s title

Idaho’s Mikayla Ferenz has her shot blocked by Northern Colorado’s Kianna Williams in the first half of the Big Sky Tournament championship game in Reno, Nevada, Saturday, March, 10, 2018. (Tom R. Smedes / Associated Press)
Idaho’s Mikayla Ferenz has her shot blocked by Northern Colorado’s Kianna Williams in the first half of the Big Sky Tournament championship game in Reno, Nevada, Saturday, March, 10, 2018. (Tom R. Smedes / Associated Press)

RENO, Nevada – After a game like this, the Idaho women can’t wait to get back on the court.

And the sooner the better, Vandals coach Jon Newlee said after his team lost 91-69 to top-seeded Northern Colorado for the Big Sky Conference championship Saturday afternoon at the Reno Events Center.

“We want to go out and play better than we did today,” Newlee said.

The Vandals will get that chance, but it won’t be in the NCAAs.

With Big Sky regular-season Most Valuable Player Savannah Smith leading the way, UNC dominated the second and third quarters and shot 54 percent from the field to reach the NCAAs for the first time in school history.

The Bears were even better from beyond the arc: 14 of 25, or 56 percent, a bitter taste of its own medicine for Idaho.

One night earlier, Idaho put up 31 long-range shots and made 16 of them in a 102-99 semifinal win over Portland State. Not this time.

“I thought it started pretty good,” said Newlee, who won the title two years ago. “We were right there, but then they just got hot.”

That’s a scary scenario for any Big Sky team against the Bears, whose nonconference RPI is 21st thanks to wins over 20th-ranked DePaul, LSU, and a trio of West Coast Conference teams.

“I feel like they were at their best today,” said Newlee, whose club is 19-13 and qualifies for the WNIT as the Big Sky regular-season runner-up.

Going into Saturday’s game, the Vandals had reason to hope for more.

Idaho split with UNC this year, taking a 79-71 win in Greeley on Jan. 25. That gave them hope against one of the best Big Sky teams in recent years, but the Bears pulled away after the first quarter on Saturday.

UNC (26-6) dominated in all phases of the game, winning on the boards and holding the Vandals to 6-for-16 shooting from outside.

“We tried to take away their spots,” UNC coach Kamie Etheridge. “We suffocated them.”

Newlee saw it the same way.

“Defensively they did a good job of pushing us out of our spots, and I don’t think we handled it was well as we could have.”

Senior forward Geri McCorkell led the Vandals with 20 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Junior sharpshooters Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce had 18 apiece.

Idaho shot a respectable 46 percent from the field (38 percent from long range), but couldn’t match the Bears’ accuracy.

Idaho hung with the Bears for a quarter, but Smith played a nearly flawless first half, scoring 20 points while shooting 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.

Smith, who beat out Ferenz and Eastern Washington’s Delaney Hodgins for MVP, also had four assists in the first half.

She finished with a game-high 34 points, shooting 11-for-18 from the field and 5-for-6 from long range. She also controlled the pace of the offense and had eight assists.

Smith was at her best in the last five minutes of the half, scoring 10 points as the Bears turned a four-point lead into a 43-31 advantage at halftime.

“She exploded today,” Newlee said.

The Bears faded in the second half of Friday’s 73-66 semifinal win over Idaho State. Instead, the lead was up to 66-48 after three quarters. UNC led by as many as 24 points in the second half.

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