SEATTLE – Say this for the Montana State women’s basketball team: The Bobcats had no interest in serving as window dressing for Washington’s next lengthy adventure in the NCAA Tournament or the 8,000-plus purple-clad spectators eager to give the potent Huskies a rousing sendoff.
The scrappy Bobcats took the fight to UW from the get-go and kept their first trip to The Big Dance since 1993 interesting for a half Saturday night until the superior Huskies’ size, speed and athleticism prevailed.
The eventual 91-63 defeat Saturday night at the Alaska Airlines Arena resulted in the inevitable trail of senior tears, but the 14th-seeded Bobcats (25-7) also left feeling as if they’d accorded themselves and the Big Sky Conference well.
The crowd’s appreciation for MSU’s pluck was exemplified by their late-game ovation for tireless forward Peyton Ferris, who was playing with a heavy heart after learning her brother’s best friend back home in Twin Bridges had died. Ferris fouled out after proving her Big Sky Player of the Year mettle with a game-high 33 points over, around and under the Huskies’ monstrous interior.
“Walking in the door, it was kind of a weird atmosphere,” MSU guard Riley Nordgaard said. “Some girls had a little bit of nerves, but for most part we were like, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. Washington is going to have to take it from us. They are gong to have to prove this to us.’ I think when we walked on to the floor, that is what you saw in the first quarter. That was Bobcat basketball. Then things got away from us. Credit to the University of Washington. They’re a very talented squad.”
MSU dogged UW (28-5) All-American Kelsey Plum – the NCAA’s leading all-time scorer – and made her work for her team-high 29 points. The sinewy and jet-fast lefty also had plenty of help from tireless guard Aarion McDonald (15 points) and the human Volkswagen, Chantel Osahor, a 6-foot-2 space-consumer who had 16 points, 19 rebounds and even hit two 3-point shots with little more than a flick of the wrist.
The Bobcats even led 17-16 after a first quarter with nine lead changes before Washington began exerting its will. The third-seeded Huskies, hoping to repeat their run to the Final Four, outscored MSU 44-16 in the paint and scored 22 points off turnovers compared to the Bobcats’ four.
“We needed every single Husky fan that was there tonight because we had a tall order facing a team coming off a championship that played like a championship team," UW coach Mike Neighbors said of the Bobcats. "They were very, very well-prepared and executed very well. They exposed us every single time we made a mistake. We had to fight to hang around in the first quarter and then it progressively started becoming an advantage to us that we were rested.”
To be sure, the Bobcats never were awed by the packed partisan house or played if they were just happy to be invited to the dance after a quarter-century on the sidelines.
Their drive was epitomized by Ferris, whose eyes were red and her voice cracking afterward as she talked about her emotional rollercoaster she's experienced since last Saturday.
“It was an extremely weird day, but in the end I know what he would have said to me before this day – go leave it all out there,” Ferris said of her brother’s deceased friend. “I felt like that’s what I had to do and that’s what happened.”
Neighbors tipped his cap to all the Bobcats, saying all five starters could play in the Pacific-12 Conference, and then added extra praise for Ferris.
"She’s unguard-able,” Neighbors said, marveling that she shot 12 free throws against his team. “You can’t keep her from getting her shot.”
Added Nordgaard: “Big Sky MVP, without a doubt.”
When it was over, 12th-year MSU coach Tricia Binford reminded her team that only one team finishes the tournament with a win and reiterated her pride. After the postgame press conference, she received a warm embrace from MSU President Waded Cruzado, who was among the boisterous cluster of fans decked in blue and gold.
“I can’t think of a more exciting team, or fun team to coach,” Binford said. “It’s always hard to finish a season like this. We definitely left it all out there.”