RENO, Nevada — Beating the top four teams in the Big Sky Conference in a nine-day period requires a lot of energy.
So much that ninth-seeded Idaho State ran out of it by the second half of the Big Sky Conference championship game and fell 67-55 to in-state rival Idaho on Saturday at the Reno Events Center.
“It caught up with us a little bit, especially in the third quarter with our shooting. All of those legs are gone at this point,” said Idaho State coach Seton Sobolewski. “But regardless, I think we played very hard.”
The Bengals missed 20 of their first 23 shots in the second half. In the meantime, the Vandals found a rhythm after a lackluster first half, going 42.9 percent from the field and 5 of 8 from the 3-point line.
Former Idaho State coach Jon Newlee improved his record to 2-2 against the Bengals as Idaho's coach. His name was called from the stands by Idaho State fans for his comment Friday when he compared his team’s 89-68 road loss to the Bengals to a WWF wrestling match. He had some choice words about the heckling he said he experienced at Reed Gym and the Reno Events Center this year, calling the hecklers “pathetic.”
“And there they were again,” Newlee said. “All I did was win there and leave there. And they’re still bitter apparently eight years later, which is their problem. Certainly not mine. I’ve moved on, man. I’m a Vandal.”
Newlee, who coached at ISU from 2002-08, finished out his statement about the treatment by a few ISU fans by saying his team has three NCAA tournament appearances in four years and the “grass is greener in Moscow.”
The Vandals were not allowed to coast to their latest bid to the Big Dance. Idaho State finally found its shot in the last two minutes of the game, making four 3-pointers to trim the lead to single digits. Idaho kept the Bengals at bay from the charity stripe where the Vandals were 13 of 14 down the stretch.
Sadness expected from falling short of winning a title came after the matchup. Senior forward Anna Lee Policicchio, who scored a team-high 15 points, brought facial tissue to the postgame press conference.
“It’s my last game with the Bengals,” Policicchio said. “It sucks to lose in the championship game because you’re so close. But I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. It’s been a crazy end to the season and couldn’t be more thankful and blessed to have been with these ladies and coaches.”
To finish the regular season, the Bengals defeated Eastern Washington and Idaho, the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Big Sky Conference. They followed that up by beating first-seeded Montana State and fourth-seeded North Dakota after defeating eighth-seeded Northern Colorado in the opening round of the Big Sky Conference tournament.
The Bengals looked like they were on the path to complete their improbable run when they took a 26-23 lead into halftime. They were scratching and clawing in an attempt to clinch the victory. Forward Lindsey Brown, who had a game-high 14 rebounds, dove for a loose ball and Idaho State scored on the other end on a Policicchio turnaround jumper to give the Bengals their biggest lead of the game, 24-17, in the second quarter.
While they beat every Big Sky top four team from March 2-11, defeating No. 3 Idaho for a second time turned out to be too much to ask.
Idaho State finishes the season 18-15 with a postseason bid not expected. The Bengals won five of their last six games after starting the conference slate 0-4.
“I’m extremely proud of my team to keep getting better. They could have lost and got discouraged or got selfish with each other,” Sobolewski said. “They didn’t. They just kept working hard, got better and got better. And then we got pretty good right at the end of the season.”