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BOISE, Idaho — Sydney Gandy cast up a 3-pointer. Montana State couldn’t do anything after that.

Idaho was up by 10 points, but the Bobcats still had a chance to come back late. Gandy’s shot, though, would give the Vandals a likely insurmountable advantage.

The Bobcats helplessly witnessed the ensuing few seconds. The ball bounced around the rim, and to most everyone at Boise Central Arena, this only lasted a moment.

To the Bobcats, this was the culmination of two years. In 2019-20, they won nearly every Big Sky game they played. But their season ended before they could face Idaho in the conference championship due to coronavirus concerns. They would never see how far they could take a star-studded team.

Since the beginning of the season, though with a young roster, the Bobcats’ motto was “something to prove.” In the Big Sky tournament semifinals, the Bobcats finally had another shot at the Vandals. They had worked for a full year for a moment like this.

But Gandy’s 3 fell through the hoop. The Bobcats didn’t accomplish what they sought out to. The No. 2-seeded Vandals advanced to the Big Sky championship Wednesday with an 80-64 win.

For another season, the Bobcats (17-7) were left to wonder what else they could have done.

“I’m really proud of this squad for all that they’ve overcome in a very unusual and difficult and challenging year,” Bobcats head coach Tricia Binford said. “We’ve accomplished a lot this season, and there’s always going to be that final stop.”

Binford previously mentioned last year’s abrupt end didn’t sit right with this season’s team. MSU senior guard Tori Martell had confessed she couldn’t stop thinking about the previous year, even though this was a different team. “It was a hard way to go out,” she said.

Martell brought up that MSU had something to prove. It was the hashtag used on the team’s social media accounts. It was something that motivated the Bobcats.

Though the Bobcats were among the youngest teams in the country this year, they proved they were among the best programs in the conference by earning the No. 3 seed in the Big Sky tournament.

But against the Vandals, the Bobcats wanted to prove they could defeat one of the top teams in the Big Sky during the postseason. The Vandals and Bobcats didn’t even get a chance at a rematch this regular season due to coronavirus issues on Idaho’s part.

The highly-anticipated matchup didn’t disappoint early on. Both teams exchanged buckets and the lead from the commencement of Wednesday’s contest.

Late in the first quarter, MSU all-conference point guard Darian White pulled up from near the free-throw line and was fouled on her made jumper. Teammates high-fived her, but White appeared calm.

She was the Big Sky freshman of the year on last season’s MSU team. Though the Bobcats now had the advantage, she knew anything could be taken away from her team at any moment.

Later on, Idaho’s Natalie Klinker got her own offensive rebound and went back up for a layup, cutting MSU’s lead to one. But midway through the second quarter, Taylor Janssen hit a jumper, propelling the Bobcats to a 26-21 lead, the largest advantage for either team up until that point.

White, who ended up with a team-high 15 points, started to take over. She hit jumpers and drives to boost her team. She recorded seven points and three assists in the second quarter alone.

With 2:30 to go in the first half, White drove along the baseline, attracting defensive attention, and fired a one-handed pass over to the opposite side of the court. Leia Beattie was wide open at the right corner for a 3-pointer. After Idaho put together a 5-0 run to tie it, Beattie’s shot created by White gave the Bobcats a 29-26 lead.

Neither team was willing to relent.

“Two teams fighting for a chance to get to the conference championship game,” Vandals head coach Jon Newlee said, “you would expect nothing less.”

In the second half, though, the Bobcats began to show their weaknesses.

To open the third quarter, Idaho all-conference sophomore Beyonce Bea caught an offensive rebound over a crowd of Bobcats players and scored on a putback. Less than a minute later, she dribbled down the floor and hit a jumper from near the free-throw line in transition.

With less than five minutes left in the third, Beattie saved the ball from going out of bounds on defense and threw it behind her. But it went right to Bea, who turned around and hit another jump shot for a 49-37 lead.

The Bobcats’ six-point halftime lead had disappeared. The Vandals began the second half with a 17-1 run for a 49-39 lead with 4:22 left in the third quarter.

Bea was 4 of 4 for 12 of her game-high 21 points in that stretch to start the second half alone. The Bobcats, meanwhile, were 3 for 12 in the third quarter.

“We panicked a little bit,” Martell, who finished with 14 points, said. “It spiraled a little bit when we weren’t hitting our shots.”

With 1:21 left in the third, Allison Kirby powered by White on a drive. Kirby then dropped a bounce pass behind her back to Klinker for another open shot in the paint. The Vandals ended up with 36 points in the paint.

To end the third quarter, Kirby picked up a loose ball and shot it before the buzzer sounded. The ball bounced off the glass and fell through the hoop, giving the Vandals a 12-point lead.

Vandals players crowded around Kirby in excitement as the Bobcats walked back to their bench.

This all proved to be too much to overcome. No amount of increasing the offensive tempo, no number of bruising rebounds and no amount of defensive plays that led to offensive opportunities could seemingly close the gap.

The Vandals ended up making 29 of 58 shots (50%) while the Bobcats were 22 of 63 (35%).

“We just didn’t respond the right way,” Binford said. “We had a lot of breakdowns. With a team like that, it seemed like every time we had a breakdown, they exposed it and hit a shot. This time of year, you’ve got to be super sharp, and we just weren’t able to do that down the stretch.”

Near the end of the game, with Idaho well in control, Binford pulled MSU’s starters. Fans cheered for Martell. The lone senior for Montana State was comforted by teammates. Blaire Braxton, MSU’s assistant coach who was a player on last year’s team, hugged her.

“I can’t believe it’s been four years,” Martell said after the game. “It’s been so amazing.”

As the final seconds of the contest flew by, Martell and White, a sophomore, sat next to each other on the sideline. Both were disappointed, believing they had more to prove.

One represented the past, what the Bobcats had battled through and had already accomplished. The other represented the future, what the Bobcats hope to accomplish for seasons to come and what they still have yet to prove.

“We’re a very young, talented team,” White said. “We’re a very versatile team. We have a deep bench. And I think that’s going to carry on for the next few years.”

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Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

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