POCATELLO — Not much changed in the postgame press conference after the Idaho State Bengals' first close win of the young 2020-21 season. Seton Sobolewski still measured his words carefully. Dora Goles still smiled before every answer.
The routine just came with an added level of weariness and relief, the residue of a tense win still wearing off 20 minutes after the final buzzer.
"I'm glad we made those plays down the stretch and we found a way to win, even though we didn't play very well for the first three quarters, offensively," ISU head coach Sobolewski said. "But at the same time, I don't mind winning by 20 and me not having a heart attack. I'd rather do that."
After four relatively easy wins to begin conference play, the Bengals (7-1, 5-0) barely survived against Northern Arizona (5-4, 3-2) on Thursday night, beating the Lumberjacks 70-66 at Reed Gym in a clash between the two top early-season teams in the Big Sky.
The 7-1 start is the best in Idaho State program history.
Goles scored 17 points, 13 in the second half after she started the game 0 for 8 from the field, and made multiple huge plays down the stretch as Idaho State held off the visitors in a defensive struggle that turned electric at the end.
Her 3-pointer as the Northern Arizona defender ducked under an Ellie Smith screen gave the Bengals a 65-60 lead with 59 seconds left to play.
One possession later, she went to the same play — pick-and-roll, heading towards the middle of the floor with her left-hand dribble — and this time slipped a pass to a rolling Smith for an open layup and a 67-63 lead with 26 seconds to go.
"I love the pick-and-roll situation," Goles said. "I grew up playing point guard and it's the situation I'm most comfortable in. I love making plays like that, but Ellie made some great plays too, she made that layup. ... I felt super confident throwing her the ball down there."
Both plays answered 3-pointers as Northern Arizona, 0 of 10 from deep in the first three quarters, made five in the fourth quarter. Three came in the final 1:20, keeping the suspense dialed up as Idaho State tried to put the game away.
After Smith's layup, JJ Nakai made the last of NAU's run of 3-pointers to cut the lead to 67-66. Goles made one of two free throws after an intentional foul, giving the Lumberjacks a chance to tie it or go ahead, but Jacey Bailey's turnaround jumper in the post was short.
Smith grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and made both free throws with three seconds left to end it.
It was by far the closest game Idaho State has played in yet this season. Only one of the Bengals' first seven games — a 74-67 win against Northern Colorado on Dec. 14 — was decided by single digits, and that one was comfortable at the end.
Thursday was most definitely not.
Idaho State led 44-43 going to the fourth quarter as both teams slogged through the first three. Goles was 1 for 11 at one point, and she, Callie Bourne and Diaba Konate were shooting a combined 3 of 21 for 12 points at halftime. Estefania Ors kept the Bengals in it with some big shots en route to seven points at halftime and 11 for the game.
"I felt good. Like, my shot felt good, they just didn't go in," Goles said. "But I tried to stay positive, the whole team stayed positive, and we just kept pushing through. We didn't shoot very well, but we tried to step it up on defense and win there."
Northern Arizona wasn't any better. The Lumberjacks, missing preseason Big Sky MVP Khiarica Rasheed, shot 3 of 10 on free throws in the first quarter and 33% from the field in the first half.
After the third quarter was more of the same, the fourth brought the fireworks that were expected in a game between two of the Big Sky's most talented offensive teams.
"You just always know that can happen, and we've seen (Northern Arizona) do that in the past," Sobolewski said. "We knew that it could come, and you could just feel it on the bench, the coaches really know because they know the history. I thought we did a good job of staying tough, and (NAU) just hit some tremendous shots."
Bailey's 3-pointer early in the quarter, NAU's first long-distance make of the game, gave the Lumberjacks their first lead of the second half. The teams went back and forth from there until a 3-pointer by Konate and jumpers by Smith and Montana Oltrogge — a 7-0 run in a game with precious few of those — gave Idaho State a 62-57 lead with under two minutes left and set up the thrilling finish.
Goles added eight rebounds, four assists and two of Idaho State's three steals to her scoring tally. Konate had a double-double with 14 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and Smith had 12 points and eight boards.
Miki'ala Maio had 17 points, Nakai 16 and Emily Rodabaugh 13 for Northern Arizona.
The teams play again on Saturday at noon in Reed Gym.
IDAHO STATE 70, NORTHERN ARIZONA 66
Northern Arizona 15 12 16 23 — 66
Idaho State 13 16 15 26 — 70
Northern Arizona — Maio 17, Nakai 16, Rodabaugh 13, Bailey 8, Schenck 6, N. Moran 6.
Idaho State — Goles 17, Konate 14, Smith 12, Ors 11, Bourne 8, Moore 6, Oltrogge 2.