BOISE — When the unceremonious end arrived, Dora Goles untucked her jersey and began to walk off the Idaho Central Arena court, joining her Idaho State team in the march. As tears welled in her eyes, she raised her arms above her head and waved to the ISU fans, the enthusiastic followers who had traveled hundreds of miles to watch the top-seeded Bengals play in the Big Sky Tournament.
Goles wanted to show her appreciation for the supporters, but after Idaho State succumbed to a massive upset and bowed out of the tournament with a 72-54 quarterfinal loss to Northern Colorado Tuesday afternoon, she and the Bengals could no longer do so on the court. She put on a brave smile as she looked upward. As she realized what this moment meant, that the fifth-year senior’s time at Idaho State was coming to a close, she felt the emotion weigh on her.
Then Goles vanished into the hallway, and with her, she took the end of an era.
“It was one of my last times playing in an Idaho State jersey,” Goles said, “and I know how many people came to watch us play and watch me play. I wanted to make sure they know they’re appreciated.”
Idaho State’s season isn’t over yet — the Bengals earned a WNIT bid because they won the conference’s regular-season championship — but for Goles and the team, this amounted to a stunner. Idaho State, last season’s regular-season and conference champs, were heavy favorites. The Bengals had nearly a week of rest. The Bears had to win a first-round game to advance to this one.
So the list of ways to describe this result might stretch to the moon: Surprising and perplexing in some ways, predictable and understandable in others. Idaho State may have been front-runners to win the tournament crown, but all season, the Bengals had trouble defending physical post players like Northern Colorado forward Kurstyn Harden, who singed ISU’s defense for 23 points and nine rebounds. Idaho State rosters a cadre of reliable shooters, but on Tuesday, they made just 32% of their shots from the field.
Idaho State’s best chance to mount a rally came early in the fourth quarter, when Goles splashed a triple from the corner, slashing Northern Colorado’s lead to 49-46. The Bengals, languishing in dire straits for so long, found momentum. Bench players yelled like banshees. The fans, the same ones Goles waved to after the game ended, urged their team to keep going.
Instead, the Bengals’ fatal flaw became a death knell. Harden turned around and engineered a personal 10-2 run. The 6-foot-2 bruiser buried ISU players underneath the basket. She tip-toed around the sideline for reverse layups. Across the past few weeks, Idaho State felt like it had found ways to counter its lack of size, but Harden made mincemeat out of the Bengals. They had no answer for her.
When Harden completed her onslaught, Northern Colorado had seized a 61-51 lead with four minutes to play. The Bears scored nine more points in a row. The Bengals could not counter.
“Every time we started to get some traction, they’d get the ball in the post to Harden and she’d make a reverse layup,” Idaho State coach Seton Sobolewski said. “Or you’d have a ball screen late in a possession and someone hits a tough 3 off a ball screen.”
Idaho State’s biggest problems started there. Northern Colorado shot a blistering 51% from the field, including 6 of 11 from beyond the arc. Those issues had direct correlations. This season, to defend bigger posts like Harden well, the Bengals brought a double team when opponents lobbed it inside. But Northern Colorado features some of the conference’s best shooters, so the Bengals couldn’t always commit two defenders to Harden. That gave her one-on-one opportunities in the paint. She made ISU pay.
That made it harder for the Bengals to come back, sure, but it also prevented them from getting out in transition. Instead, when the Bears made shots, they settled into their zone defense. Idaho State rarely found ways to solve it.
The story was, to some extent, in the numbers. Junior guard Tomekia Whitman, who earned first-team all-conference honors on Monday, scored eight points on 12 shots. Estefi Ors, a sixth-year senior who landed on the second team, tallied seven points on 10 shots. Idaho State’s leading scorer was reserve Finley Garnett, who posted 11 points on an efficient 4-for-6 shooting performance — but with the experience and talent on the Bengals’ shelves, they needed more out of their key cogs.
At some points, Idaho State found ways to crack the zone. Montana Oltrogge cashed a pair of mid-range jumpers in the paint. Ellie Smith laid in a couple layups off nice dump-off passes in traffic. It was clear the Bengals knew how to navigate a zone. They just couldn’t do so nearly consistently enough.
“I think it was a mix of all of it,” Goles said. “A lot of missed shots and turnovers.”
That’s part of what made this Idaho State loss shocking: If any team in this tournament looked susceptible to those kinds of offensive blunders, surely it wasn’t the Bengals, far and away the Big Sky’s most experienced team. Around this time last year, with much the same team, they mowed down three teams in three days for the conference crown. Rarely do veteran teams wilt like this. When they do, they play defense well enough to make up for it.
Idaho State couldn’t execute on that end because the problem that plagued the team all year long — that no Bengal can match up with players like Harden, which forces double teams — haunted them when the stakes were highest.
ISU will find out its WNIT opponent this Sunday. Several teams across the country have already earned bids, so potential matchups range from Oregon to South Dakota State. But among those teams, good luck finding one that will enter the postseason tournament with a worse taste in their mouths than Idaho State.
For the Bengals, that’s the challenge: Find a way to put this loss in the past. Their expectations for the conference tournament lived in outer space, so it will take some time. But even on Tuesday afternoon, when Goles disappeared into the tunnel and a promising season took a disastrous turn, the Bengals knew they still had basketball to play. Now they just have to find out who it will be against.
“There’s a bigger picture that we need to look at,” Goles said. “Yeah, we’re sad right now, and we wish it was different. But we’re just gonna take the best outlook on it that we can.”