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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 5:34 PM

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Seattle U women fall short of NCAA bid, but hope to refuel for WNIT

Sylvia Shephard walked to the Seattle University bench and bent over as her tears began. Her coach, Joan Bonvicini, patted her on the back...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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LAS VEGAS — Sylvia Shephard walked to the Seattle University bench and bent over as her tears began. Her coach, Joan Bonvicini, patted her on the back, whispered that she was proud of her and tried to minimize the pain.

There was no relief, however.

In college basketball, nothing hurts like March.

The Seattle U women's basketball team had just lost 67-64 to Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference championship game Saturday afternoon. A frantic finish ended with the Redhawks rallying from nine points down with 33 seconds remaining and getting two difficult three-point attempts from Shephard and Daidra Brown that would have tied the score. Shephard missed the first one, and then Brown's desperate turnaround heave bounced off the backboard at Orleans Arena.

It was over — the game and the dream. Five years into a transition back to Division I, the Redhawks fell shy of an improbable NCAA tournament berth. After winning the regular-season WAC title in their first season in the conference and storming to the title game after two blowout wins, they had to settle for respect rather than hardware. A victory would've been the cherry atop this sundae of a season. What Seattle U accomplished isn't less sweet in defeat, but oh what they could have earned.

"We had every opportunity to win this game," Bonvicini lamented.

The Redhawks didn't take advantage of those opportunities because they made only 11 of 24 free throws and missed 21 layups, according to the official play by play. They also didn't defend well early, and Idaho made 5 of 10 three-pointers while building a 23-13 lead with 8:03 remaining in the first half.

Seattle U (20-10) responded after the slow start, and a great game ensued. Thirteen lead changes. Five ties. It was a physical, elbow-to-the-ribs kind of competition. But despite being outrebounded 52-38 and committing 18 turnovers, No. 3 seed Idaho outlasted the top seed with timely shooting and good interior defense.

"You see the numbers aren't really in our favor, but ultimately, the final number was," said Idaho coach Jon Newlee, whose team is going to the NCAA tournament after making a remarkable comeback from a 3-9 record to start the season.

The Vandals (17-15) blocked nine shots, six of those via forward Ali Forde, a freshman from Woodinville High School. Former Eastlake High School star Alyssa Charlston led Idaho in the first half by scoring 10 of her 15 points, and then guard Stacey Barr owned the second half. She was scoreless at halftime but finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

Because the Redhawks shot just 33.8 percent, they weren't able to apply as much full-court pressure as they would've liked. When the Redhawks pressed, the Vandals struggled. The pressure almost led to an epic Idaho collapse after the Vandals took a 66-57 lead with 33 seconds left.

The late comeback epitomized the unrelenting nature of Seattle U. This program has a spark to it that you immediately recognize when you watch the Redhawks play. Even though they couldn't tie it at the end, that spark remains.

"I think we surprised people a little bit," said junior forward Ashley Ward, who had 11 points and six rebounds. "I'm so proud of our team that we were able to do that. It's been a fun run."

Bonvicini made a salient point in the locker room afterward. During her most difficult speech of the season, she looked at her teary-eyed players and told them how to handle their disappointment.

"You can put it in your trunk and use it and have it weigh you down," Bonvicini said. "Or you can put it in your gas tank and use it as fuel and learn from it."

The pain of being so close to the NCAA tournament will linger, but if you play for Bonvicini, it can't last. Her mantra is "Building Champions," and to her, struggles are part of a champion's training regimen. The next step in the process is to take the automatic bid that the women's NIT offers to regular-season conference champions and make the most of that tournament.

"We're not going to let this game block everything that we've accomplished," said junior forward Kacie Sowell, who led Seattle U with 17 points and 15 rebounds.

Shephard proved just that during the postgame. While most of the Seattle U team went to the locker room shortly after it ended, Shephard and Sowell had to remain because they made the WAC all-tournament team. Shephard sat on the bench, head down, still crying. But after her name was announced, she stood, wiped her eyes and walked to the stage at midcourt with pride.

She composed herself long enough to accept a plaque and shake hands with WAC interim commissioner Jeff Hurd. She even mustered a smile for the cameras.

As soon as she walked away, the pain and the tears returned.

Nothing hurts like March.

But the Redhawks' gas tank should be full soon.

.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Twitter: @JerryBrewer

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