LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Ask any basketball coach and they'll tell you one of the most important parts of their job is to get their team to play its best basketball at the end of the season. Well that goal is certainly being reached for Idaho Coach Jon Newlee and the Vandal women, who out-scored the Western Athletic Conference's best offensive team in an 84-82 win over Utah State in the WAC semifinals to reach their first-ever WAC championship game.
"It was a total team effort by us today at both ends," Newlee said. "We hung tough in the first half when shots weren't really falling. In the second half everybody got in there and made a positive contribution to our basketball team and that's why we won that game."
The Vandals (16-15) trailed by just two, 34-32, at halftime despite shooting just 26.3 percent (10-of-38) in the first half. Things picked up for both teams in the second half, as Utah State (18-13) made its first six 3-pointers after halftime and built an eight-point lead with 10 minutes to play.
Idaho then seized the momentum with a 22-5 run that lasted four and a half minutes and left Idaho ahead 68-59.
"No, we earned it, I don't think we stole it," Newlee said when asked if he felt the Vandals stole the win from Utah State. "We played extremely well today and that run proved how well we played. They're a great basketball team, without a doubt. It was a game of runs and our run came at the end."
Utah State's Devyn Christensen, who exploded for 37 points on nine 3-pointers and a 14-of-24 overall shooting performance, kept the Aggies in the game. Christensen scored 18 of her 37 points in the final four minutes of the game as Utah State cam all the way back to tie the game at 82-82.
"We had no answer for Christensen, but she was making unbelievable shots," Newlee said. "That was an unbelievable performance by Devyn, who is a heck of a basketball player."
Idaho's Addie Schivo was fouled with 3.5 seconds on the clock and made both free throws to give the Vandals the final lead. Christensen turned the ball over as time expired on Utah State's final possession.
"I knew it was going to be a close one and I possibly could be in that situation," Schivo said. "I was pretty comfortable. It was a little nerve-racking, but when I hit the first one I knew I was good, just take my time and hit the second one and win this game. It was amazing."
While Schivo scored Idaho's final points, it was Stacey Barr who carried the bulk of the load for Idaho's offense. Barr poured in a career-high 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 3-of-6 from long range. She also added six rebounds, three assists and three steals in the game.
"My teammates were setting good screens and getting the ball moving and that led to some wide open shots," Barr said. "A huge pass from Connie when she drove baseline towards the end and I was open because she drew the defense. We played as a team this game."
Barr was just one of five Vandal players to score in double figures. Junior Alyssa Charlston and senior Jessica Graham each added 12 points and six rebounds, sophomore Krissy Karr scored 12 as well and freshman Ali Forde had a 10-point, 14-rebound double-double.
Idaho shot 40.0 percent from the field for the game, and 56 percent in the second half, connecting on 18-of-32 attempts after the break. Utah State shot 44 percent for the game, but Idaho's 47-35 advantage on the glass, 18-12 advantage in second-chance points and 21-9 edge in points off turnovers gave the Vandals the edge.
"Rebounding was going to be huge going in," Newlee said. "They're very athletic, their guards rebound really well, they're big and strong. We knew going in we'd have to rebound well. Our mindset coming in was to rebound really well. We can't give up second shots, they're too good and they have too many weapons to give them a bunch of extra shots, and our team took that to heart and really did a good job on the glass tonight."
Idaho will face the winner of (1) Seattle U and (5) Louisiana Tech on Saturday at noon on ESPNU. The Vandals were swept by both teams in the regular season, and lost buzzer-beaters on the road to both schools. The winner of that game will earn an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, where Idaho hasn't been since 1985.
"It's great to be in the WAC championship game," Newlee said. "It'd be great for the entire Vandal nation, Moscow, everything. There's a lot of Vandal pride, and it's great to be in a position where we could possibly deliver that NCAA tournament berth and a WAC championship."