Vandals battle Griz down to the wire

You can take the University of Montana's 75-33 pounding of the Idaho Vandals on Nov. 22 in Missoula earlier this season with a grain of salt. Based on what took place Saturday night in Moscow, the Vandals and Grizzlies turn out to be two pretty evenly matched basketball teams right now. The rematch, a 64-63 Idaho loss, went down to the final thrilling seconds in a game that saw 20 lead changes.

Unlike the first meeting between Idaho and Montana earlier this year (a blowout Idaho loss in Missoula), Saturday's rematch in the Cowan Spectrum wasn't decided until the final buzzer. In this hard fought battle, the Griz pulled out a 64-63 win when Idaho's Deremy Geiger put up a last second shot that bounced off the rim at the buzzer. It was a disappointing finish for the Vandals, but it doesn't take anything away from the intense effort they put into the game.

Officially, this border war was tied 10 times. There were 20 lead changes. No team led by more than 10 points. The Griz, which have already beaten UCLA and Oregon State this season, seemingly had the game on ice leading 62-57 with 1:14 left, but Idaho refused to buckle. A tip-in by Brandon Wiley with 53 seconds left made it 62-59. Wiley then picked Will Cherry's pocket for a steal with 36 seconds left, and in the transition Vandal Landon Tatum was fouled and made both ends of a 1-and-1 to make it 62-61 Montana.

Less than 2 seconds later Montana's Jordan Wood missed back-to-back free throws. Kyle Barone got the rebound for the Vandals with 34 seconds left. The Vandals worked the ball inside to Shawn Henderson who hit a jumper in the paint with 15 seconds left to make it 63-62 Idaho. Nine seconds later Derek Selvig hit a jumper to make it 64-63 Montana with 5.5 seconds left. The Vandals took a time out and got the ball to Geiger in the back court. He sprinted down the floor and took a jump shot at the horn that bounced off the rim leaving Idaho a point short.

In the post-game media conference Geiger said he was hoping to get a good look for the game-winner. "Just some type of opening to get a good shot, " he said. "I had only five seconds to get from about three-quarters court to get a decent look…but it just didn't make it…I thought it was (going in). I wanted it to go it in bad, but I missed it."

"That's a hard one to lose," said Vandal coach Don Verlin. "It's gut wrenching. I thought our guys played extremely hard. I thought they fought all night long. I thought they showed a lot of courage down the stretch. I think we were down five (62-57) with 1:14 to go and we found a way to come back and take the lead."

A key factor in the game was Idaho's ability to pound the ball inside and cash-in against Montana's bigs. Idaho outscored Montana 34-16 in the paint and held a 10-8 edge in second chance points. The two teams were even in rebounds with 27 each.

Comparing Thursday's heart-breaker to the earlier blowout loss, Verlin said, "A number of things were different. First and foremost, I thought we competed and played a lot harder this time. Number two is we did a great job on Brian Qvale (21 points in Missoula, 6 points in Moscow). We were able to double down off him. We were able to hold him to six points and six rebounds, and until late in the second half we did a great job on Will Cherry (24 points in Missoula, 14 in Moscow). I thought that was the reason the game was so close," Verlin said. He then added, "Shawn Henderson goes down with cramps (missing 7 minutes) and he's the guy guarding Cherry most of the night, and that obviously had a little effect on our defense going down the stretch."

Geiger admitted the Vandals were looking to gain some respect after the lopsided loss Nov. 22. "I think this time we came out ready," he said. "We came out and competed and we showed that we really wanted to win. We played with a lot of heart down to the final buzzer. A couple of things we could have done better, but overall it was a great game. They just beat us. They came up with a couple big plays at the end and they got the 'W.'"

Geiger was also quick to give props to the Vandal front liners. "Our bigs did a great job," he said. "We made some game time decisions and in a couple of situations we were going to double down hard and it worked for us. Our bigs did a great job on containing the big guy (Qvale), and we executed that really well."

Verlin agreed. "Our big guys played extremely hard tonight, and they played extremely well. Coaches always look at bad things. We turned it over a few too many times down there, but the one thing they did is they worked really hard around the basket tonight, and I thought our guards did a great job doubling down. They made the plays when they had to. We came into the game knowing we had to take away Qvale; then Kareem Jamar steps up and makes three-out-of-three 3-point goals. I thought they got a great game out of Mathias Ward. He comes off the bench and gets 12 points in 20 minutes and that's probably the difference in the game."

When asked to sum up the game, Geiger was succinct: "We played good. We played overall a solid game. Just at the end they made a couple more bigger plays than us and that propelled them over the top. We were right where we wanted to be this whole game."

Verlin, though disappointed with the loss, said his team can't afford to dwell on what might have been. The Vandals will work out Sunday afternoon to begin preparing for a game Tuesday at Mac Court against the Oregon Ducks. Looming just over the horizon is the opening of WAC action Dec. 29 and 31 at the Cowan Spectrum.

"The schedule gets really tough," Verlin said. "We go play at Oregon and then we come home to open league against New Mexico State (Dec. 29) and Louisiana Tech (Dec. 31); so…it gets really tough. I told the guys in the locker room afterwards we can't have a hangover. We've got to come back to work tomorrow at two. I thought we had a great week of practice. I thought we got better this week. I think this team is getting better, and the next time we get in a situation like that we've got to find a way to win the game."

Geiger led the Vandal scorers with 14 points, while front liners Wiley and Barone each had 12 and Luiz Toledo had eight on the night. Tatum finished with seven, Shawn Henderson six, and Jeff Ledbetter and Stephen Madison had two points each. The rebounds were evenly distributed with Wiley getting seven, Barone six, Henderson and Toledo four each, and Ledbetter and Geiger had three. Ledbetter had five assists, Henderson had four, and in steals Henderson, Wiley and Geiger had two each. The Vandals had 13 turnovers to 15 for Montana, and held a 9-7 edge in steals.

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