It was pure pandemonium. Every Idaho fan in attendance was on the court, players were decked out in championship T-shirts and hats, and the band was screaming “Vandals! Vandals! Vandals!”
This was the scene at the Orleans Arena March 16 when the Idaho women’s basketball program finished off Seattle U 67-64 to clinch the program’s first berth to the NCAA Tournament since 1985 as the Vandals became champions of the Western Athletic Conference.
One of the first things Idaho coach Jon Newlee did was seek out his fifth-year senior post, Jessica Graham. He hugged her, and then apologized to her.
Sorry it took five years,” he told her. “We’re finally here.”
If anybody understands the journey this program’s been on since Newlee’s arrival in 2008, it’s Graham.
Throughout her five-year career at Idaho she’s had four injuries to her left knee that required three surgeries and ended two seasons and limited her in her last three with Idaho.
Her last surgery was just last April. It was worth it for her to continue her career, to try and contribute one last time to a team that had championship aspirations.
Eleven months after that surgery she was on the ladder taking her piece of net. Her last collegiate game will be in the NCAA Tournament.
“I could not have asked for a better situation right now. I love my team and I am so thankful that they were able to help me on this journey,” she said. “This is all I’ve ever wanted, I’m just so happy I have no words for it.”
It’s not as if Graham was just along for the ride in Las Vegas — she was a much-needed contributor.
In 18 minutes of action in the championship game she scored eight points on 4-8 shooting with six rebounds. In Idaho’s 84-82 semi-final victory she scored 12 on 5-7 shooting to go with six rebounds in 24 minutes of action.
In the quarterfinal she didn’t contribute as much offensively, but collected seven rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes of action. Idaho won its three games by a combined seven points, games that could have easily swung the other way without Graham’s contributions in the paint.
Alyssa Charlston, Idaho’s first team All-WAC star, wasn’t quite herself the first two games. Graham helped fill the void in the paint in the meantime.
“Coming in knowing Jess’ story, she’s such an endurer, she goes through everything and she has such a positive attitude about everything and she’s such a positive leader,” Charlston said. “She’s wanted everything for us. She’s one of the most selfless players I’ve ever played with. To get such a big thing for her after she’s worked so hard is huge for us.”
The book written on Graham during the last five years has been dominated by injuries. Now she will get one last opportunity to end her story on the court, and it will be in the NCAA Tournament, where no Vandal has gone since 1985.
Sean Kramer can be reached at email@example.com