The Weber State Wildcats finished their second season under Head Coach Velaida Harris after the young group lost their first-round match-up at the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, ID, at Centurylink Arena on March 9.
Before traveling to the tournament, the ladies capped off the regular season with a victory against the Eastern Washington Eagles at the Dee Events Center. They honored lone senior Gina O’Brien.
With that win, the regular season was finished, and WSU took off to Idaho to participate in the conference tournament where the winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The blessing of post-season tournaments is that once they begin, anything can happen. The regular season suddenly does not matter because you are a loss away from your season being over.
The matchup for the Wildcats was one that they share a state with, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. While the in-state rivalry is already apparent, it meant a little more for junior guard Liz Graves because her sister Madelyn Eaton is a freshman guard for SUU.
The siblings spent time guarding each other through the first two matchups, both won by SUU in double-digit fashion.
The Wildcats opened up the game playing with fire against their in-state rivals. The intensity was evident, and it sparked them on the defensive end. Junior forward Kayla Watkins and Liz Graves led the way in the opening quarter when it came to scoring. Graves had eight points and Watkins had six.
The rest of the Wildcats were smothering the T-Birds and making it hard for SUU to get into their pick-and-roll action. The first quarter ended with the Wildcats holding an 18-14 lead over their rivals from down south.
The second period opened up with more Watkins, as Kayla buried a soft three to push the lead to 21-14, but SUU answered with a 3-pointer of their own. Watkins responded with a driving lay-up to give her 11 points.
The pace slowed down for a few minutes before freshmen forward Daryn Hickok muscled in her second and-1 finish of the game.
Next up from the freshmen was the other forward, Jadyn Matthews, who took advantage of her pivot foot and scooped in a layup to give the Wildcats a 28-19 advantage. They were rolling.
A short SUU spurt helped them cut the lead to 28-23 before Watkins continued to cook. As the half began to close, the Wildcats began to unravel a bit as momentum shifted towards the team in white, red and black.
However, with 1:12 remaining in the half, the Wildcats held a 30-29 lead. The half ended with redshirt freshmen guard Ashley Thoms racing up the floor confidently with six seconds left and floating a tough lay-up in as the buzzer sounded. WSU led 32-29 at the break.
The second half began with the ‘Cats and T-Birds exchanging baskets before Liz Graves picked up two quick fouls on loose balls. With 5:53 left in the half, Hickok and sophomore guard Kori Pentzer each picked up their third fouls on back-to-back plays due to their intensity on the defensive end.
With 5:30 left, the Thunderbirds took their first lead of the game, which was then answered by a layup from freshmen Ula Chamberlin to knot things up at 38 apiece.
With just over two minutes remaining in the third, SUU held a 43-38 lead with neither team really holding any momentum. With the third quarter winding down, Chamberlin buried a corner three to bring the Wildcats deficit down to 2, and on the other end, Hickok put SUU’s leading scorer on clamps, as she forced up a bad shot as time expired. The scoreboard read 43-41 in favor of SUU.
The fourth quarter began with an aggressive drive from Hickok to bring her to the free-throw line and allow her to tie the game at 43-43.
SUU jumped out to a 47-43 lead before Watkins buried another three from the wing to cut it to 47-46. It was Watkins’ 20th point of the night.
With 3:05 left, the ‘Cats were skating on thin ice, as SUU had control with a 56-49 lead. As WSU and SUU exchanged baskets and free-throws, madness ensued. Welcome to March.
Kayla Watkins banked in a huge 3-pointer off the backboard from well behind the line to cut the lead down to 60-58, with 20.2 left in the game. The arena was now into it.
The Wildcats needed a quick steal or a foul, and before anyone could blink, Thoms forced a turnover and came away with a steal. She passed the ball up the floor, and Graves attacked her sister on the drive. There was contact, but her feet tangled as she drove and was called for a traveling violation. Timeout, SUU.
On the SUU inbound, senior guard Rebecca Cardenas caught the ball, committed a traveling violation and committed a backcourt violation, but both were missed by the ref, as the arena and WSU bench erupted. Cardenas was intentionally fouled, and during the review to see if the foul was flagrant, everyone saw just how bad they missed the call. Cardenas stepped up to the line and sank two free-throws, bringing her point total to 28 points. The senior sealed the game, and WSU fell to SUU by a score of 62-58.
Coach Harris described what she was feeling after the game. “What I appreciate is the kids kept fighting… I’m just really really proud of my kids,” Harris said.