Troubles and triumphs: women’s basketball in Big Sky

Weber State University women’s basketball team attempting to grab a basketball from Montana State players before they make a point. (Kennedy Camarena/ The Signpost)

After a tournament full of upsets in Boise, Idaho, Montana State’s women’s basketball team won the Big Sky championship last season. With many All-Conference players returning this year, it’s time to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the Big Sky conference.

Idaho State University
Strengths: The Bengals have a tenured veteran coach in Seton Sobolewski. It’s no secret that this team lost a massive part of their core lineup, but Sobolewski has coached over 23 Big Sky All-Conference first team members during his 14-year tenure. Expect veteran guard Callie Bourne to become a key playmaker for Idaho State’s young team.

Weaknesses: The team that suffered the biggest upset in last season’s Big Sky tournament against the University of Northern Colorado, Idaho State lost many key players. Guards Tomekia Whitman, Estefania Ors and Diaba Konate were vital to the team’s regular season success. With a roster consisting of eight freshmen, some growing pains are expected for the Bengals this year.

Montana State University
Strengths: Last season’s Big Sky tournament champions come back as the favorites this year. Led by guard Darian White and forward Kola Bad Bear, it’s hard to name another team in the conference that can keep up with the Bobcats. Although they didn’t lose many players over the offseason, expect Tricia Binford to put freshmen like Lindsey Hein, Marah Dykstra, Dylan Philip and Mattie Olson in critical situations to prepare for losing White.

Weaknesses: It’s hard to say this team has a weakness. That said, the Bobcats are the team to beat coming into next season. Montana State was one of the worst teams at defending the three last season. Although they were efficient from the three on offense, teams like Idaho, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado could give them problems.

University of Northern Arizona
Strengths: The Lumberjack’s might be the hardest team to make predictions for in the Big Sky. They were one of the three best teams during the last regular season and finished in the conference championship. However, they didn’t send a single player to an All-Conference team (though players like guard Regan Schenck and forward Khiarica Rasheed received honorable mentions). They had the highest scoring offense in the Big Sky but one of the worst defenses.

What is clear is that veteran coach Loree Payne has developed a winning system. The team hasn’t had a losing season since 2018-2019. Although young, expect Northern Arizona to do well this year with Regan Schenck back to facilitate the offense.

Weaknesses: As stated before, this team is young this season. With five freshmen on the roster, it’s likely the Lumberjacks will encounter growing pains. Northern Arizona could also benefit from focusing more on defense and increasing their scoring margin.

University of Montana
Strengths: After losing in the tournament last year against Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies have forward Carmen Gfeller coming back to lead this team. The team with the highest win margin last season, Montana has a decent offense and an elite defense. In just his second year as the team’s head coach, Brian Holsinger has proven he can lead the Grizzlies to success.

Weaknesses: It won’t be easy to replace guard Sophia Stiles this season, especially with five freshmen. Although Holsinger’s lineup had multiple freshmen last year and enjoyed regular season success, it’s hard to trust young players in big game situations. Come tournament time, it’s vital for this team to rely on their veterans.

University of Idaho
Strengths: Guard Beyonce Bea is back, and that’s a major reason why people can believe in one of last season’s Cinderella stories. The Vandals still have an offense that can make up for their weak defense. As far as elite coaches are concerned, it’s hard to put anyone above three-time Big Sky Coach of the Year Jon Newlee. Newlee has built a system that can incorporate the five incoming freshmen.

Weaknesses: Although players like guard Louise Forsyth will be missed, this team’s weakness is its defense. A team that was top five in points last season, their win margin was only above the winless Portland State Vikings. What needs to change most is their rebounding. Idaho doesn’t grab a lot of rebounds, but they give away more than any team in the conference.

Sacramento State University
Strengths: Reigning Big Sky MVP guard Lianna Tillman is back as a graduate student this season. Leading the conference in scoring and averaging nearly 5 points more than the second runner up, Tillman is the heart and sole of this team. Isnelle Natabou is also coming back this year after her successful freshman debut last season. Sacramento State is one of the most experienced teams in the conference, a key part in what could be a fantastic season.

Weaknesses: It’s best to talk about the weaknesses of this team when analyzing their performance against their kryptonite: Weber State University. Weber State wasn’t a dominant team last season or the season before, but they’ve swept the Hornets in their last five matchups, including in the conference tournament.

The reason is the Wildcats have dominant forwards and centers. Sacramento State’s lineup primarily consists of guards with only three centers and no forwards. As good as Natabou is, she can’t be this team’s only presence in the paint, especially come tournament time.

University of Northern Colorado
Strengths: With a University of St. Peter’s-like run in the Big Sky tournament last year, this team proved that they’re full of surprises. Forward Kurstyn Harden and guard Hannah Simental lead the team as the Bears were able to carry out new head coach Kristen Mattio’s vision in the postseason. For what they lack offensively, Northern Colorado’s defense makes up the difference. This team still has the tools to make a deep tournament run.

Weaknesses: Northern Colorado is a confusing team. They had a positive average scoring margin, yet a losing record. They’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league and the best team at defending the three. Statistically, this team should’ve won more games. What destroyed them last season was turnovers. For this team to operate at their full potential, they’ll need to take better care of the ball.

Eastern Washington University
Strengths: The Eagles have a great returning lineup consisting of guard Jacinta Buckley and small forward Jaydia Martin. Two stand-out players last season, Buckley and Martin have created a strong foundation for what could be a season with many improvements. Eastern Washington can hold its own defensively and with eight new freshmen, they have a chance at turning their offense around.

Weaknesses: Holding Northern Colorado to 64 points in their tournament game last season could’ve put the Eagles in a position to upset. However, the team got blown out 45-64. Eastern Washington was tied for the second worst scoring margin in the Big Sky last season. This team desperately needs an offense, primarily when it comes to 3-pointers.

Weber State University
Strengths: It was in the tournament last season against Sacramento State that Weber State proved that a bad regular season record doesn’t mean a team should be counted out. With their three star forwards Daryn Hickok, Emma Torbert and Jadyn Matthews coming back, this team has a roster strong enough to make them a Big Sky threat. The Wildcat’s roster is not only talented, but has experience working under coach Velaida Harris’ system, who signed an extension with the team over the offseason.

Weaknesses: People watching Weber State last season saw multiple close losses. The Wildcats have trouble maintaining their lead, especially in the fourth quarter. With guards Kori Pentzer and Aloma Solovi gone, this team has holes to fill. The worst 3-point shooting team in the conference last season, a strong deep-ball shooter is what the Wildcats need to increase their scoring margin.

Portland State University
Strengths: It’s hard to bring up the strengths of the Vikings, especially when they had a scoring margin of -12.4 points last season. That said, the team has guard Sofia Llanos transferring over this season, a player who, when she was 15-years old, averaged 17.2 points per game over the course of 18 games during her time in the third-tier national league. Players like Llanos might give second-year coach Chelsey Gregg what’s need to make an impression during her second year as head coach

Weaknesses: Portland State has a lot to fix before they’re considered a threat in the Big Sky. They had the worst defense and the worst offense in the conference last season. A team that puts an emphasis on the 3-pointer and the free throw line, the Vikings need to make a bigger impact in the paint and on the boards.