Last season was one of firsts for the University of Northern Colorado women’s basketball teams.
The Bears picked up their first Big Sky regular season championship with a 14-3 conference record.
They won their first Big Sky Conference tournament with a 91-69 trudging of Idaho in the championship game.
And therefore they qualified for their first NCAA Tournament, grabbing a No. 10 seed and a first round matchup with Michigan.
But there will be a few firsts this year as well.
Most notably: first-year coach Jenny Huth, who spent the past seven seasons as an assistant at UCLA.
Huth has some big shoes to fill, replacing Kamie Etheridge who left to take the head coaching position at Washington State.
“Some people are scared to walk into a successful program, but it intrigued me,” Huth said shortly after she was hired. “It’s fun so see them make plays in practice without having to overcoach them.”
So the Bears aren’t expected to miss a beat. Expectations are still high — and with good reason.
“I think we’re a really smart team. We’re really fast and we have some advanced post play,” Huth said. “And obviously with Savannah (Smith) having experience she has.”
Ahhhh, yes. The Bears (not so) secret weapon: Savannah Smith.
The Fort Collins native was named Big Sky player of the Year last season, averaging 18.4 points and 3.7 assists per game to pace UNC.
“Coming in and coaching a player like her is a gift,” Huth said. “I can talk to her on the sideline and she knows what saying. I can make adjustments. And we aways have chance because she’s ready to make the clutch play.”
She made the clutch play over and over last season — most notably a game-winning three at the buzzer to take down Weber State.
She also scored a career-high 34 points in last year’s Big Sky championship game. She matched that mark in the Bears season opener against CU this season.
And with the departure of Savannah Scott and Kianna Williams, she’ll be wearing another hat.
“I think I’ve stepped into more of a leadership role now that Savannah (Scott) and Kianna (Williams) are gone,” Savannah Smith said. “But we have some really good players coming up that really help me in that way.”
Sophomore Alexis Chapman will step into a bigger role this season, and returning starters Krystal Leger-Walker and Ali Meyer will take on an increased workload.
But it’s the same situation college programs have faced for years.
Reload, don’t rebuild.
And after a pair of early season games, the Bears look like they are well on their way to that.
“It’s looking good so far,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on but we’re improving each day, which is really exciting to see.”
UNC: The Bears lost two key players last year to graduation and face a hard schedule all around. The upside is they return the league and tournament MVP, Savannah Smith as their leader. The success may be harder to come by, especially in the early portion of the schedule, but they will be able to produce a worthy season. Highlights on their schedule include all of the Division I Colorado schools (three away, one home), LSU (away) and BYU (away).
Idaho: The Vandals lost three important players to graduation and will rely even harder on freshmen impacts to compensate. The conference seems to think Mikayla Ferenz can do it all by herself, but that is a tall order for anyone to overcome. Supporting reasons for that doubt come from Idaho’s non-conference schedule that includes Stanford (away), Texas Tech (away), Boise State (away), San Francisco (home), Hawaii (away), Wyoming (away) and Gonzaga (away).
Portland State: The Vikings look to make a statement as they had zero seniors last year and finished with a 19-13 record. This year it would be reasonable to consider Portland State a Big Sky title contender. With a moderately difficult schedule, the season could be very successful if they perform big in non-conference games like San Jose State (home), UC Davis (home), Seattle (home) and UNLV (home).
Idaho State: The Bengals recover well from a loss of two seniors with minimal impacts last season. This could be a team who gets overlooked early on, but rallies well late in the season. The difficulty level of their season could also be described as moderate. There will be an early three game road trip that will test their talent and cohesiveness; Arizona (away), Gonzaga (away) and Utah (away).
Eastern Washington: Losing Delaney Hodgins will deal a massive blow to the program. This is asking a lot, almost too much of the others around her to compensate for her graduation. Tough games for the Eagles in non-conference will be: Gonzaga (home), BYU (away), Utah (home), Fresno State (home) and Boise State (away).
The Mirror’s Big Sky Rankings
- Northern Colorado
- Portland State
- Eastern Washington
- Idaho State
- Montana State
- Weber State
- Sacramento State
- Southern Utah
- Northern Arizona
Projected Champion: Big Sky Co-Champions UNC and Portland State
Most Improved: Portland State
Biggest Decline: Montana
Other tough and exciting Big Sky out of conference games:
November 7: Montana at Gonzaga
November 9: Montana State at Marquette, Idaho State at Arizona
November 11: UNC at LSU, Idaho at Stanford, San Jose State at Portland State, Gonzaga at Eastern Washington
November 13: Idaho State at Gonzaga
November 16: Denver University at UNC, UC Davis at Portland State, Ohio State at Sacramento State
November 17: Eastern Washington at BYU, Idaho at Texas Tech
November 19: Idaho State at Utah
November 20: UNC at Colorado State
November 21: Weber State at Incarnate Word, Utah at Eastern Washington
November 23: UNC at San Francisco, Idaho State at Georgia Tech, Sacramento State at Pepperdine, Idaho at Boise State
November 24: Seattle at Portland State, Illinois at Sacramento State, South Dakota at Montana
November 25: Weber State at UTSA
November 27: Montana State at Wyoming
November 28: UNC at Air Force, UTEP at Weber State
December 1: SMU at UNC, Northern Illinois at Montana, San Francisco at Idaho
December 2: Fresno State at Eastern Washington
December 5: Northern Arizona at Colorado State, Montana at Arizona, Weber State at Pepperdine, San Francisco at Sacramento State, Idaho at Hawaii
December 7 Eastern Washington at Boise State, UC Davis at Sacramento State
December 8: Montana State at TCU, Idaho at Wyoming, Pepperdine at Idaho State
December 9: Portland State at UTEP
December 13: Chattanooga at UNC
December 14: Oregon State at Eastern Washington
December 15: Weber State at Utah, Montana at Washington, UNLV at Portland State
December 18: South Dakota State at Montana State
December 19: Sacramento State at New Mexico
December 20: Idaho at Gonzaga
December 21: UNC at BYU, Northern Arizona at Arizona
Sports editor Chris Bolin contributed to this report.