RENO, Nev. — A spirited comeback brought the Montana State women's basketball to the brink of an upset win Wednesday in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
But the seventh-seeded Bobcats couldn't seal the deal, squandering two possessions in which they could have tied or jumped ahead in the final four minutes. Second-seeded Idaho escaped with a 78-74 win in quarterfinal action at the Reno Events Center.
"We had a tough first quarter and I love how we battled back," said MSU coach Tricia Binford, whose team trailed by 12 early in the fourth frame. "We gave ourselves a great chance down the stretch and just weren't able to finish it."
Montana State (16-15) picked up the intensity on both ends and made a 12-2 run that cut its deficit to 62-60 with just over four minutes left. Rebekah Hatchard squandered a chance to tie the score for the Cats when she turned it over while driving in the paint.
Taylor Pierce gave Idaho more breathing room with a triple, then Oliana Squires returned the favor to pull the Cats back within two with just over two minutes left.
Delany Junkermier pulled down a defensive rebound to give Montana State possession with a 65-63 deficit and under two minutes left. But Junkermier misfired on a close-range shot off glass and Mikayla Ferenz made the Cats pay with a 3-pointer at :49.
Idaho added four free throws to stretch its lead to 72-63 with 34.5 seconds left but Montana State still didn't give up. Junkermier, Hannah Caudill and Laura Pranger all hit 3-point shots to pull their team back within two, 76-74, with 2 seconds left. At that point the Cats were forced to foul and Geraldine McCorkell hit two free throws to kill Montana State's comeback hopes.
"It was a heck of a game, quite a battle," said Idaho coach Jon Newlee, whose team led by as many as 16 points early in the second quarter. "I love the way we came out that first quarter without rust.
"You always worry when you get the bye how you're going to start. The first quarter set the tone. We led from start to finish and never let them get in front."
Montana State was 17 for 49 shooting through the first three quarters but finished strong, hitting 10 of 15 shots in the final frame. That and hustling man defense keyed its comeback.
"I think we just had an aggressive mindset," Caudill said of the fourth quarter. "(Assistant) Coach (Nate) Harris made some adjustments on defense that we stuck to pretty well.
"It got in our heads that could be our last game and we had to fight to the finish. On the offensive end we were just aggressive. No one was hesitant."
The Bobcats struggled to hit shots for most of the first half, missing 23 of their first 30. They went into halftime riding a wave of momentum, however, thanks to a 12-5 run that cut their deficit to 38-31.
Pranger led a balanced attack for Montana State with 17 points. Oliana Squires added 14 points.
The Cats made 12 triples. Together with the Vandals they set a record for most made 3-pointers by two teams combined in a Big Sky tourney game (26). Pierce made a game-high seven 3-pointers and in the process set a league record for most in a career, passing the 300 mark.
Idaho improved to 18-12 and will play in a semifinal on Friday afternoon.