RENO, Nev. — Peyton Ferris finally established an MVP presence, but it was Annika Lai who delivered the death blow to Eastern Washington.
Lai, a reserve forward, made a running shot with three seconds to lift Montana State to a 61-59 victory over EWU on Friday and into the championship game of the Big Sky Conference women's basketball tournament.
Flashing open at the top of the key, Lai took a pass from Riley Nordgaard, drove left and banked the ball off the glass. That led to a final chance for the Eagles, but a shot by Tisha Phillips at the buzzer was no good.
MSU advanced to its first conference title game since 2010. It was the program’s 24th victory this season, which tied a school record.
The top-seeded Bobcats (24-6) will now try to win their first tournament championship since 1993 on Saturday against No. 6 Idaho State
Ferris, the team’s prime senior leader and its top scorer, wasn’t the only option on MSU’s final possession.
“We drew it up for me, Peyton or Riley, whoever was open,” said Lai, a sophomore from Boulder, Colorado. “We all did our best to get open. Riley couldn’t come off Peyton’s screen very well, so I just flashed towards her to try to give her an outlet. The clock was winding down so I just went to the basket.”
“Annika was open, I gave her the ball, and at the top of the key I’m watching my sophomore take contact, get on with the left hand and finish,” Nordgaard said with a smile. “It’s a pretty great moment.”
Lai hit a similar shot with 46 seconds left on a pick-and-roll play with Nordgaard, a basket that gave the Bobcats a 59-56 lead. But Eastern Washington's Delaney Hodgins hit a no-hesitation 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to tie the game.
Lai finished with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and played an important role in keeping the Bobcats in the game while Ferris, the winner of the league’s most valuable player award, rode the bench with foul trouble in the first half.
Ferris, though, came alive and scored all 16 of her points in the second half. A day after being held to four points and just three field goal attempts in a quarterfinal win versus Weber State, Ferris took only three shots in the first half against EWU.
But she refused to stay silent. In the locker room at halftime, Ferris’ teammates wouldn’t let her.
“Hannah (Caudill) mentioned: ‘Peyton, man, we need you to score!’” Nordgaard said. “And Peyton goes, ‘Alright. I’ll take care of it.’
“That’s the kind of confidence and that’s the kind of player Peyton is.”
“She played like the league MVP today,” EWU coach Wendy Schuller said. “It’s hard when you can’t get around her and you when can’t move and do the things you’re trying to do on the defensive end. I give our kids a lot of credit for battling, but she did step up and hit some big shots for them.”
Nordgaard, who was held scoreless against Weber State, finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and four assists — two of which were delivered to Lai in the final minute.
And it was Nordgaard’s offensive rebound that eventually led to Lai’s basket that produced the three-point lead with 45.9 ticks on the clock.
Now it’s on to the championship game for the Bobcats. It tips off Saturday at 1 p.m. Mountain time.
“Couldn’t be happier. Ecstatic to go to the championship,” Ferris said. “We’ve got one more, and we want it bad.”
MSU hasn’t gone this deep in the Big Sky postseason since 2010 when it lost in the title game to Portland State in Cheney, Washington. The Bobcats haven’t won the tournament since 1993 under then-coach Judy Spoelstra, a victory over Montana at Worthington Arena in Bozeman.
Saturday’s matchup with Idaho State is intriguing on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that the Bengals stunned MSU in the quarterfinals here last season on a last-second buzzer-beater. The teams split during the regular season, with the most recent meeting last Wednesday, a 73-67 MSU win.
This time, a trip to the NCAA tournament is on the line.
“They are familiar. We played them last week,” Bobcats coach Tricia Binford said. “We'll just have to go out and play a great 40 minutes and be physical. They're going to give us a great test."