Montana State faced a bitter memory Saturday for the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship.
Idaho State ended the top-seeded Bobcats’ season last year in the quarterfinals with a 3-point buzzer beater.
The Bobcats carried last year’s lesson learned into this week’s tournament, avenging their 2016 loss in a 62-56 win Saturday in the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game against the Bengals. The win punches Montana State’s first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since 1993.
“Being that number one seed last year, we learned, doesn’t mean anything in tournament time,” Montana State senior Riley Nordgaard said. “You got to take care of games. So this year coming in with that edge, I think, we adjusted through the week and stayed hungry and stayed humble and fortunately the ball bounced our way.”
But it wasn’t easy.
After entering halftime up 32-28, Idaho State held Montana State to six points in the third quarter and led 39-38 headed into the fourth.
After three lead changes in the first two minutes of the fourth, Bobcat coach Tricia Binford said her team pushed its advantage as the top seed.
“I did address trying to take advantage of the second half . that’s the advantage you have over the course of the season with that one seed,” she said. “They had to play four games and we had to play three. Both teams are tired. We wanted to play that up-tempo and try to take advantage of that.”
Seniors Peyton Ferris and Nordgaard led the Bobcats (25-6), who set a school record for wins, with 23 and 16 points, respectively.
While Ferris admitted she was nervous headed into the matchup, she and Binford said they weren’t thinking too much about last year’s loss, especially down the stretch.
After the third quarter struggles, Montana State pulled away, outscoring the Bengals 24-17 in the final quarter.
Idaho State (19-14) made two more 3-pointers than the Bobcats but were outscored by 12 from the foul line as MSU was 9 of 13 in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore Grace Kenyon led the Bengals with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
“We took care of what we can control and the selection group will have to make their decision, but we’re excited about Monday,” Binford said. “We’re going to be fired up about whoever it is (we play).”
After reach the title game as a nine seed last year, the Bengals returned as a six seed this year.
“I never imagined this ever being possible,” Idaho State coach Seton Sobolewski said. “It’s a complete surprise to me. If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season that this was going to happen after everything else that happened, I’d say you’re crazy.”
Juliet Jones’ 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted the ninth-seeded Bengals over the league-champion Bobcats in the quarterfinals last year. It was a memory the Montana State players used to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Idaho State: For the second straight year the Bengals’ NCAA Tournament hopes ended in the Big Sky Tournament championship game.
Montana State: The Bobcats await their NCAA Tournament matchup, which will be announced Monday night.