New faces, same game for Idaho women

Nov. 2—It's the dawn of a new era for University of Idaho athletics.

The university hired seven new head coaches over the last two years, with women's basketball coach Carrie Eighmey being a recent example.

Eighmey takes over the Vandals after spending the last eight seasons at Nebraska-Kearney, where she led the Lopers to three straight NCAA Division II tournament appearances from 2021-23 and compiled a 165-74 record.

Idaho's season tips off at 6 p.m. on Monday against Walla Walla at the ICCU Arena on the campus of the University of Idaho.

"We've been fast and furious here the first couple of months," Eighmey said. "We're trying to get a group that hasn't played together to build as much cohesion and chemistry as they can before we play our first couple of games next week."

Eighmey is taking over for UI's all-time winningest basketball coach, men's or women's, Jon Newlee.

Newlee went 257-213 with three NCAA tournament appearances. Newlee and Idaho Athletic Director Terry Gawlik agreed to mutually part ways on April 6. The former Vandal skipper is now the headman of the South West Metro Pirates of the NBL1, a professional basketball league in Australia.

Eighmey hasn't had a ton of time to build a roster, having been in Moscow for just shy of six months. Her task of assembling a group became more difficult upon arrival as a platoon of former Vandals entered the transfer portal, including star forward Beyonce Bea.

The Washougal, Wash., native, played five seasons at Idaho and finished as the program's second-all-time leading scorer with 1,938 career points. She didn't end up going too far, transferring to Washington State.

All told, Idaho managed to retain six players from last year's roster.

With a near-clean slate, here's what to expect from the Vandals:

Limited returners leading

The six returners for Idaho aren't the most prolific scorers, averaging 14.3 points per game as a group. But they've come in with a positive attitude and have bought in.

"They've been incredible," Eighmey said. "They've been super welcoming of their new teammates, and they've been totally on board with what we're selling. They want to do what we're asking them to do, and they've been very eager to do those things to the best of their abilities."

Of the six, the three most likely contributors are Asha Phillips, Ashlyn Wallace and Sarah Brans.

Phillips, a sophomore guard, has the most in-game experience, starting 15 games in 2023.

Wallace, a Clarkston High School graduate, scored 168 points while mostly coming off the bench. The junior averaged 5.8 points per game and began to shine as a defensive specialist toward the end of the season, tallying four steals in a 63-58 loss to Northern Colorado on Jan. 21.

She also started to develop as a scorer, notching a career-high 25 points four days later in a 68-61 win over Idaho State.

Brans, a sophomore forward, played in all 30 games last season and made one start. During her time on the court, she tallied 100 points, 53 rebounds, 14 assists and 11 blocks.

Experience got to come somewhere

Idaho's six returners had a combined 27 starts last season, with Phillips accounting for more than half of them. So in order to compensate for that lack of experience, Eighmey and her staff hit the transfer portal hard, adding six players.

Of those six transfers, three are graduate students, two are juniors and one is a sophomore.

"We knew we needed some players who have played a lot of college basketball," Eighmey said. "So having them come and show the way because they have so much experience has been unique. We've really leaned on them a ton to show the way. It's interesting that those players in particular don't have a lot of Big Sky experience; they don't know a lot about the conference. But they do know a lot about college basketball."

Some of the more notable transfers Eighmey and company brought in include graduate student Sarah Schmitt, graduate student Hope Butera and junior Kennedy Johnson.

Schmitt, a transfer from Eighmey's former school, Nebraska-Kearney, was one of four Lopers to start all 33 games last season.

The guard averaged 10 points per game while shooting 47% from the field.

Butera, a transfer from Florida International and a native of Kigali, Rwanda, led the Panthers with 181 rebounds last season.

The forward appeared in every game for FIU and had 19 starts. She shot 44.4% from the field and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds in a 76-65 loss to Louisiana Tech on Feb. 9.

Johnson, a transfer from California Santa Barbara, tallied 105 points, 67 rebounds, 15 steals and 14 assists last season.

"I think the whole host of newcomers, in their own way, can impact our team," Eighmey said. "We talked about experience, and you can go down that whole list and you'll find that most of those players, because of their experience, are going to be able to help our team. We're going to rely on those players to help us out."

Who is this team going to be?

Eighmey's primary focus is on rebounding and defensive effort, stating that's where consistency can be found.

"Being consistent on both ends of the floor is one of those things we rely on to be successful," Eighmey said. "Defending and rebounding is something we try to bring on a consistent basis. It's learning the system, but it's also about bringing that energy and effort that you need every day to be able to be effective on that end of the floor."

As for the offense, Idaho is still trying to find its identity.

"We're going to run stuff that our team does well," Eighmey said. "For us, we're still in the process of figuring out what this team does really well. We've only had them here for a couple of months. We're still continuing to develop our offense. I like some of the stuff we're doing right now. But as our chemistry begins to build, so will our offense."

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, or on Twitter @TreebTalks.