CHENEY, Wash. — In the moments after Tomekia Whitman authored her best game at Idaho State, a career outing that helped the Bengals take down Eastern Washington in an 87-66 victory, she chatted with her family in the stands. Thirty minutes away from her hometown, she took photos with her brother, Noah, posing for one with the gooseneck shooting form. She snacked on popcorn as she talked.
Sometimes you have to treat your game for what it was: a movie.
“After I hit a couple shots, my team started believing in me,” Whitman said. “So when I got out there, they were trusting the ball in my hands. I think that’s just what happened — having my team believe in me.”
On Thursday night, Whitman’s teammates had every right to believe in her. She dazzled with a career-best 30 points. She pulled down eight rebounds, dished out three assists and snared two steals. She splashed — well, except for the one bank — all five of her 3-pointers. She pulled down rebounds she had no business corralling. In the second half — which the Bengals won 51-29 — if you saw someone in orange making a play, it was usually safe to assume it was Whitman.
So if you want to understand how Idaho State (9-6, 5-1 Big Sky) turned a one-point halftime deficit into a win that looks like a shellacking, start with Whitman, the Spokane Valley native who authored her best game at ISU half an hour away from her hometown. Outside of a few who couldn’t make it, she had her own cheering section in the stands: Her parents, her brother and her sister.
It was poetic, but not more so than the way she played. In 32 minutes, Whitman turned into a 5-foot-10 whack-a-mole: She’s here for rebound. Then she’s there for an assist. Then she’s back here for a triple. The Bengals slogged through a listless start, letting Eagles spring open for long balls and grab misses on the glass, but Whitman steadied the tide.
“She took charge at the right time. She didn’t get nervous and tight,” Idaho State coach Seton Sobolewski said. “She just had great timing, hitting the 3s and getting to the basket. She played fantastic defense all night.”
That’s the short story of the Bengals’ win, their seventh straight. The longer one involves the way Diaba Konate and Montana Oltrogge each posted 18 points, the way the visitors became aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage, the way Idaho State posted a staggering 31 fastbreak points. The Bengals’ 87 points are their most this season against a Division I opponent.
When Whitman wasn’t making plays, Konate and Oltrogge usually were. Konate posted five rebounds and six assists, using her athleticism to push in transition and her basketball savvy to whip passes inside to teammates for easy layups. She’s still making the mental recovery from a a knee injury — Sobolewski estimated she feels 85 or 90% healthy — but on Thursday, it was hard to tell. For her part, Oltrogge spaced the floor with her shooting acumen, knocking down 3 of 8 long balls and grabbing nine rebounds.
What they had in common was this: They helped shut down Eastern Washington’s shooting. In the first three quarters, the Eagles connected on 9 of 21 treys. From the bench, Sobolewski called for a switch on ball screens, but his team couldn’t execute in time. So the hosts found space behind screens and knocked them down.
In the fourth frame, Eastern Washington misfired on all four triples it tried. The difference was in the way Idaho State defended the screens, going over them and forcing drives. Even that didn’t work for the Eagles, who shot just 29% from the floor in the second half. There’s a reason Idaho State is one of the conference’s best teams on defense.
The Bengals will have to prove it again in two days. On Saturday, Idaho State will visit rival Idaho, set for 3 p.m. in Moscow. That will cap what figured to be two of the Bengals’ easier games, road matchups against two clubs in the Big Sky cellar.
If Thursday is any indication, though, the Vandals might give the Bengals a test. Idaho State could use some more scoring from Whitman, even if it comes in triples off the backboard, like the one she banked in during the fourth frame.
“I don’t even know how to describe that,” Whitman laughed. “I just let it off, and I was like, ‘This is going to be really long.’ Then it hit the backboard and banked in. I threw my hands up and I was like, ‘If it goes in, it goes in.’”