RENO, Nev. -- Some teams live by the 3 and some die by it, but Northern Colorado earned its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament by defending it.
Savannah Smith scored 20 of her 34 points in the first half and the top-seeded Bears won the Big Sky Conference Tournament and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament with a 91-69 victory over Idaho on Saturday.
Savannah Scott added 17 points and Kianna Williams 11 for the Bears (26-6), who broke a tight game open midway through the second quarter and were never threatened in the second half, relying on a stingy defense to shut down the Vandals, particularly in the second half.
"We knew that if we gave them open looks at the 3, we were going to lose the game," Williams said.
Bears coach Kamie Ethridge said everything went right for her team, especially defensively.
"I thought our defense just suffocated them and made everything difficult for them," she said.
Idaho, 19-13, finished 6 of 16 on 3-pointers for the game, but only 1 of 6 in the second half.
Geraldine McCorkell had 20 points and Taylor Pierce and Mikalya Ferenz 18 each for the Idaho.
Smith, who added eight assists and was named the tournament MVP, sparked Northern Colorado, which shot 54 percent (34 of 63) and 56 percent (14 of 25) from 3-point range. Smith was 5 of 6 on 3-pointers.
Idaho kept the game close for much of the first half and led 23-22 with 6:32 left in the second quarter, but Northern Colorado responded with a 21-8 run to lead 43-31 at halftime.
The Bears put the game away in the third quarter, shooting 64 percent (9 of 14) and held the Vandals to 40 percent (6 of 15), while building their lead to 66-44.
Smith, a redshirt junior who has battled through a knee injury, said she tried to not think about the game being for a conference championship with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.
"One thing I tried to do was treat this like just any other game because for me, nerves could set in," Smith said.