In a city that was built on the odds being stacked against you, Idaho women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee liked the odds he was given.
The 2012-13 season had thrown everything at him and his team. Blowout losses, agonizing losses at the buzzer, a string of success in the middle of the season — you name it, Newlee’s players have gone through it.
Sitting at 11-7 in the WAC and seeded No. 3, the Vandal women came into Vegas knowing what their mission was and knowing what it would take to achieve it.
They just had to create their
That luck was created Saturday afternoon at the Orleans Arena and became reality when Newlee made the final cut to the net, putting it around his neck in celebration — the Idaho Vandals became 2013 Western Athletic Conference champions, defeating Seattle University 67-64.
“I was just thinking back when I told these guys … that our luck was going to change in Vegas when it came to those end of game situations,” Newlee said. “We’re letting ‘em ride, we’re still good to go, we got one last shot and we got this.”
The win clinches Idaho’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1985 and first championship for any Idaho team sport since joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.
“I just want everybody in Moscow and all Vandals everywhere to be proud of this team because these girls worked really hard to get where they are right now,” he said.
Work hard they did.
On December 20, the women rode back from Spokane sitting at 3-8 — Gonzaga had run them out of the gym 97-62.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this team was talented enough to get it done, but just too young. Perhaps they just needed time. Perhaps 2013 would be a rebuilding season.
Nonsense, Newlee said.
“I tell these guys when we recruit them, I tell them when we start practice, our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “That will always be our goal wherever I am coaching, I told them that’s what’s going to happen and they believed it.”
The Vandals tossed aside the final results of the first 11 games and went on to win 14 of the next 21, including the three that mattered the most.
“It was a pretty difficult start for our team. To our credit, toward the end of the season we picked it up and started playing as a team and getting those wins,” Stacey Barr, a sophomore guard and tournament MVP said. “To go to the tournament is huge, even to win this one is unbelievable — no words for it.”
Just the week before the WAC Tournament game the Idaho women walked off the court at Key Arena watching the Redhawks cut down their nets — they had won the regular season championship. The 55-53 loss was Idaho’s third consecutive loss in games decided by one possession or less.
But it didn’t demoralize them. Instead, it motivated them.
Each of Idaho’s three tournament games went down to the wire, to the final possession and the final buzzer. Even against San Jose State, which Idaho disposed of easily in the regular season. The Spartans looked poise to pull the upset until Idaho guard Krissy Karr drove the lane in the closing seconds to lay in the buzzer-beating game-winner.
It was just the beginning.
Against Utah State the Vandals survived an onslaught of 37 points from Caldwell, Idaho, native Devyn Christensen, with Addie Schivo hitting the game winning free throws with three seconds remaining on the clock. It was three more seconds of heart-pounding for Idaho — they had to watch Christensen set up at the 3-point arc as time expired trying to get a shot off, but she fumbled it and it rolled out of bounds as the buzzer sounded.
Then there was Seattle.
The Redhawks settled in a 33-28 halftime lead and seemed the more comfortable team throughout the first 10 minutes of the second half. Seattle was a dominant rebounding team and got out in transition when it got the chance, clinging to the lead thanks to second chance points and points off turnovers.
With just under 12 minutes remaining in the game the Vandals trailed 45-40, and despite their erratic play, they were just as confident as ever before.
“When things went a little south there I told them, ‘Hey, if you want to win this game then you’re going to push back, you’re going to rebound, you’re going to this’ and every one of them sat there, and people behind the bench were buying in saying ‘Yep, that’s what we’re gonna do,'” Newlee said.
Idaho clamped down defensively and started to work its offense inside out, driving to the lane and serving the ball to Ali Forde in the post. Krissy Karr served both of her assists from that point early in the game. Stacey Barr scored her final six points at the 53-second mark, sinking Seattle with clutch free throws. And it was Alyssa Charlston, Idaho’s first team All-WAC junior, who overcame the struggles of her first two games and sank a momentum-clinching 3-point shot from the top of the key with 1:22 left on the game clock to put Idaho up 60-52. From that point on Idaho controlled it’s own destiny, a destiny the Vandals parlayed into a championship.
“What’s impressed me all year about this team is the resiliency. When things start to go a little bad, they’re digging down,” Newlee said. “It’s never perfect and as long as you play as hard as you can all the time, good things are going to happen to you.”
Sean Kramer can be reached at email@example.com