RENO, Nev. — Some things are worth waiting for.
Montana State women’s basketball coach Tricia Binford was asked if she could remember what she was doing way back in 1993, the last time the Bobcats won a Big Sky Conference tournament championship.
She thought for a second, then offered a light-hearted anecdote: “Wasn’t I playing at Boise State? I was about (her players’) age. I’m feeling my age right now, too. Thank you. We never make anything easy.”
Yes, it’s been that long for the Bobcats. Their 12th-year coach was still playing collegiate basketball the last time they program got this far. But that made the celebration even sweeter.
A 24-year NCAA tournament drought ended Saturday when top-seeded MSU won a long-awaited Big Sky tourney title with a 62-56 victory over sixth-seeded Idaho State on Saturday at the Reno Events Center.
Peyton Ferris, in her role as the league’s best player, had 23 points and seven rebounds as the Bobcats exacted revenge on the Bengals, who pulled a last-second upset to send MSU home early from last year’s tournament.
What a year it’s been for Ferris: She was named the Big Sky’s preseason MVP, and then went out and earned the award during the regular season. She was picked as the tournament MVP after the win over Idaho State.
Ferris lived up to her billing — and more — and silenced the criticism from those who said she couldn’t hack it at the Division I level coming out of Class C Twin Bridges five years ago.
“I couldn’t be more excited to just complete this final goal,” she said. “Everything growing up, the dream I had ... and people were saying, ‘Well you’re from where you’re from, and it’s going to be really hard to do.’ Now I can sit there with a smile on my face and say that I accomplished all the goals I had in third grade.”
The Bobcats improved their overall record to 25-6, which set a new school record for single-season victories.
MSU will advance to the NCAA tournament for the third time ever. Its seeding and first-round matchup will be announced Monday. The Bobcats’ 25 victories and a strong RPI ranking — they entered Saturday at No. 67 — could earn them a fairly good seed.
“The biggest thing is we took care of what we can control,” Binford said. “The selection group will have to make their decisions. But we’re excited about Monday. We’re going to be fired up for whoever it is.”
Riley Nordgaard added 16 points and 10 rebounds for MSU, which trailed by 10 points in the first quarter but gradually worked its way back to take a four-point lead into halftime.
Nordgaard and Ferris both battled foul trouble, and the team went cold in the third quarter, shooting a paltry 1 for 17 in that 10-minute stretch. Still, the Bobcats led by one point going into the fourth quarter and gained some separation when reserve guard Rebekah Hatchard sandwiched a layup between two Ferris baskets that built a 52-44 lead with 3:52 left.
ISU’s Grace Kenyon, who finished with a game-high 26 points hit a 3-pointer after a timeout to shrink the Bobcats’ advantage to five, but Nordgaard, without much hesitation, answered with a quick 3 of her own at the 3:12 mark.
“My first thought was to take time off the clock,” Binford said of that possession. “But at the same time it’s a senior stepping up in a big-moment situation, and as a coach you’ve got to get out of their way.”
“When you talk about tournament time, it’s when your experience and your seniors need to carry your team, and I felt like (Ferris and Nordgaard) did that today,” Binford added.
When the final horn sounded, the Bobcats poured off the bench in celebration. Ferris and Nordgaard were both named to the all-tournament team, and each MSU player, coach and program administrator was awarded a championship plaque.
But the big hardware was the title trophy, which was paraded around the arena floor to the glee of the Bobcat faithful that made the trek from Bozeman.
Ferris was the first MSU player on the ladder for the net-cutting ritual, a fitting moment for the player that put the team on her back when it mattered most.
But the entire team took care of business all week, the way it knew it had to.
“It was definitely a team effort. Everyone had to step up and be a part of it to get us to survive every game,” Ferris said. “It’s a great experience. So many people were involved with it, and now we get to carry this forever.”
NOTES: The all-tournament team consisted of Ferris (MVP), Nordgaard, ISU’s Kenyon and Bianca Thacker, Portland State’s Ashley Bolston and Eastern Washington’s Delaney Hodgins.