Portland State women punch NCAA ticket 4 years after 4-win season

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BOISE — Four years ago, Lynn Kennedy came to Portland State to take over a women’s basketball team which had gone 4-25 and finished in last place in the Big Sky Conference the year before.

Two days ago, the Vikings shut down one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams. On Friday, Portland State showed that it had one more surprise for fans at CenturyLink Arena.

Portland State overcame a seven-point deficit in the game’s final five minutes, as the Vikings took the Big Sky Tournament championship with a 61-59 win against Eastern Washington.

“We’ve been down in these situations before and we’ve come back and done the same thing,” said senior Ashley Bolston, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and was named the tournament MVP. “It was us staying together, keeping our heads and playing together.”

The Vikings (25-7) earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2010. They plan to gather Monday night at the newly-renovated Viking Pavilion, another symbol of the resurrection of the program.

“This championship is for all these players,” said Kennedy, who came to Portland State in 2015, following 10 seasons at Southern Oregon, where he won 208 games over 10 seasons and led the Raiders to the NAIA Division II tournament three times. “Four years ago, they believed in a system that wasn’t in place, we didn’t have a team, I think I had three players on campus when I arrived. They believed in an arena that wasn’t built, and they went to work. You go back to our team retreat this past fall and we looked each other in the eye and each one of us believed 100 percent that we would be in this moment, cutting down the net.”

The win capped a three-game run for the Vikings in Boise this week, which saw the tournament’s No. 4 seed have to overcome obstacles in every game. On Tuesday, they overcame a 33-30 halftime deficit to beat Montana State 68-56. Wednesday, they shut down top-seeded Idaho and two of the most prolific shooters in conference history.

On Friday, they closed the game on an 11-2 run, capped by a mid-range jumper from freshman Desirae Hansen with 3.1 seconds left to put the Vikings ahead for good.

“Every little kid dreams of hitting a shot like that,” said Hansen, who had been 1 for 5 from the field up until that shot. “You just shoot it for fun, and one day it becomes a reality.”

Making the shot all the more unbelievable was the fact that the fade away jumper by the freshman wasn’t one of the three options the Vikings had talked about before the play.

Kennedy said a backdoor screen pass to an unspecified player, with 6-foot-4 junior Courtney West getting the offensive putback if needed, had been the call. Instead, Hansen pulled up just outside the paint with two defenders on her and sank the shot.

“Today she stepped up, and she wasn’t a freshman today,” Kennedy said. “She was a veteran player who stepped up and hit a big time shot that a lot of pro players can’t make.”

Eastern Washington (13-20) held a lead for 29 minutes and 17 seconds of game time and looked to be pulling away after a basket by Grace Kirscher with 5:35 left gave the Eagles a 57-50 lead. But a 3-point shot by Sidney Rielly off an offensive rebound sparked a run of nine consecutive points for Portland State. Bolston hit a jump shot with 1:50 to go to put the Vikings ahead 59-57.

“Defensively, we extended out,” said Kennedy. “Our press kind of put them back on their heels a little bit, and what it did was it took 10 to 12 seconds off the shot clock. They were doing a good job of picking us apart. So they were getting in their set with 14, 15 seconds on the shot clock, so they had to speed it up a little bit. I thought that really changed the game.”

Jessica McDowell-White tied the game for Eastern Washington with 20 seconds left before Hansen’s shot. A long jumper by EWU’s Violet Kapri Morrow at the buzzer bounced off the back of the rim, sending Portland State players into a celebration.

The loss ended a hard-fought tournament run for the Eagles (13-20), who as the No. 6 seed had to play four games in five days. Eastern Washington was looking for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1987.

“I feel really bad that I couldn’t get these guys to the tournament,” Eastern Washington coach Wendy Schuller said, fighting through tears after the game. “They deserved it, they worked so hard for it. I just feel really bad that I couldn’t get them there.”

Alissa Sealby led the Eagles with 15 points.

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