As planned, the Vikings took the court last Sunday at Oregon State looking like a much different team than the one that lost 58-24 to the Beavers on Dec. 7.
They outshot, out-rebounded and out-blocked their host in the second round Women’s National Invitational Tournament matchup, but in the end it was not enough to overcome the Beavers, who sank 22 free throws en route to a 59-47 victory.
With the win, the Beavers advanced to the next round of the tournament, while the Vikings’ season came to an end. But Portland State head coach Sherri Murrell was not disappointed in her team at all.
“After the game, I told them I was extremely proud of them,” Murrell said. “They left everything on the court. There was definitely a sense of satisfaction, knowing that they gave it their all.”
The Vikings stayed with the Beavers through the whole contest, trailing by just five points at the half.
The game was in stark contrast to the previous matchup, in which the Vikings only managed 24 points on 22 percent shooting. This time around, team leaders Kelsey Kahle and Claire Faucher were determined to pose a greater challenge.
Faucher, the All-Conference junior guard, led the Vikings’ cause by scoring 13 points in the first half to lead all scorers.
But both she and Kahle landed in foul trouble early and were forced to spend precious minutes on the bench in the first portion of the second half. It was during this stretch that the Beavers took advantage of the Vikings, clamping down on the defensive end and forcing a total of 25 turnovers, which they converted into 21 points.
“We got into trouble when the team was dealing with someone they weren’t used to, which was having both Kelsey and Claire on the bench with foul trouble,” Murrell said. “But they continued to fight hard, and the game was a lot closer than the final score suggests.”
The squad fought right down to the last possession, showing the same grit and determination that led them to their school’s all-time best final record at the Division I level, 23-10.
The two games that the club played in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament —both coming against in-state rivals—was the squad’s first-ever postseason appearance since making the jump to Division I.
“I’m extremely proud of what this team was able to accomplish this year,” Murrell said.
“They had a lot of pressure coming into the season, but they embraced every game as it came. They didn’t look too far ahead, and they didn’t keep the past games in their pocket. Every game they played as hard as they could.”
The whirlwind season, Murrell’s second at the helm for Portland State, featured an epic conference run that took them all the way to the Big Sky Championship game.
There was a bounty of highlights on the year, including a home victory on Jan. 29 over Montana, which advanced the Vikings’ undefeated conference run to seven games.
There was also the final home game of the season, a first-round tournament matchup against Portland. The Vikings won that game, their first-ever Division I postseason contest, behind Kahle’s 30 points and 10 rebounds.
Not only did the team post their second consecutive 20-plus-win season and their best-ever conference record (14-2), but Kahle, the newly crowned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, walked off the Stott Center Court with 11 individual school records, including most career points and rebounds.
“There are a lot of players out there who have amazing skill, talent and athletic ability,” Murrell said. “But to combine those gifts with determination, leadership and effort is something special. Kelsey had all those things. It’s very rare to find an athlete with such an amazing will.”
Along with Kahle, the Vikings will say goodbye to senior guards Katia Hadj-Hamou and Audrey Grant.
All three players contributed to the vitality and re-emergence of the program under Murrell, and the second-year head coach is already looking back fondly on their tenure.
“The best part of my job is when people like Kelsey walk into the program,” she said. “The worst part is when they walk out. The seniors that are leaving this year are just great people off the court. I’m really going to miss them all.”