Vandal women drop two to Nevada, USU

THE IDAHO WOMEN ENTERED THEIR LAST TWO HOME GAMES of the season with high expectations. They came into Thursday night's game tied for fourth place with Nevada and a game behind third place Utah State. The schedule had the Vandals hosting Nevada Thursday and Utah State Saturday for Senior Day, the final home appearance for five Idaho seniors. Unfortunately, the Vandals would drop both games.

"It's a huge week for us, I think it's real important, it's our last two home games," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said early in the week. "You always want to defend your home floor, and now against a team we're tied with and a team that is one game above us, it doesn't get any bigger than this. We need to come with a lot of energy in two really tough games."

A surprise boost for the Vandals came when senior Rachele Kloke (who recently cracked the 1,000 scoring mark but was injured Hawai'i) was cleared to play and would start in the Thursday game against Nevada. Hopes were high for the Vandals, but it turned out to be a devastating 72 hours for the Silver and Gold.

On Thursday night senior forward/post Yinka Olorunnife posted yet another double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, fellow senior Derisa Taleni added 10 points, and freshman Alyssa Charleston also score 10, but the Nevada Wolfpack dominated in the key holding a 41-27 edge in rebounds and outscored Idaho 36-24 in the paint (thanks to a 22-10 edge in second-chance points) and posted a 69-63 win.

The loss made Saturday's matchup with Utah State even more important to the Vandals who had hoped to finish the weekend in third or fourth position to set themselves up for a possible a first round bye in the WAC tournament next month.

After Saturday's pre-game ceremonies honored seniors Kloke, Olorunnife, Taleni, Bianca Cheever and Emily Doran and their parents, the Utah State Aggies controlled the opening tipoff, scored 24 seconds into the game, and threw their favored pressure defense at the Vandals. The two teams battled back and forth with the Aggies being the more aggressive, physical team from the outset. USU led by 10 with 6:15 remaining in the first half but the Vandals went on a 10-3 run on a three-point play by Taleni, a three by Keri Arendse, a putback by Taleni and a bucket by Ganeaya Rogers to make it 24-21 at the half.

Unfortunately for the announced crowd 403 in the Cowan Spectrum the Vandals would get no closer. The Aggies rotated 13 players into the game (10 with 7 or minute of playing time) and kept the physical pressure on for a full 40 minutes. Ball control was a concern going in after the Vandals turned the ball over 28 times in their first meeting with USU, but in Utah the Vandals countered with accuracy from three-point range and put five players in double figures before losing 70-64. Sadly for Idaho that was not the case Saturday.

Utah State forced the Vandals into a season high 30 turnovers, held a 40-30 scoring edge in the paint, held a 27-12 edge on points off turnovers and a 12-6 edge on fast break points to win going away, 67-51.

"We started really, really slow in the second half," Taleni said after the game. "We couldn't get ourselves out of the hole…We've just got to dig through. We've got to play through it, and sometimes that (opponents playing a hard physical style) gets to us a lot especially coming down towards the end of the season. It's continuing to be like this. We've just got to fight through it. We can't hang our heads all the time.

"We were really robotic, and that kinda took us out of our element," Taleni continued. We weren't just playing basketball. We were statues standing, passing, standing, passing. We weren't really creating shots for each other."

Vandal coach Jon Newlee summarized the game succinctly: "We were doing a decent job of being aggressive in the first half…we were getting beaten around, and maybe it was like a boxer who takes too many punches. You kinda start backing down a little bit, and I thought we backed down in the second. We didn't keep our aggressiveness up from an offensive and/or defensive standpoint. They're a big, physical basketball team and that's their style. Hats off to them. I thought they played extremely well today and took us out of our game, and you see the results.

"I was disappointed in that second half effort, but you've got to keep battling when things don't go your way," Newlee continued. "I think there were high hopes for us coming into this homestand, and I think with the close loss to Nevada and then with the second half slipping away I think you could almost see that it was like, 'Oh man. We wanted so much to win these last two home games and jump back into third place and do everything that would have been possible by winning two games,' and I think in their minds they saw that it was slipping away and it was gone. The last 10 minutes I thought was just really kind of a going through the motion type situation, and that's something that we'll talk about on Monday. There's a lot of basketball left to be played in the season and three huge games in the WAC tournament that are going to be anybody's ball game. You can't have that kind of attitude. You've got to keep swinging. You've got to keep fighting. I don't care where you're at in the basketball game or in the season, and we will address that on Monday."

The twin losses dropped the Vandals (6-7 in WAC action) into fifth place in the conference standings behind Utah State (8-4) and Nevada (8-5). Louisiana Tech leads the parade at 12-0 and Fresno State is firmly in second at 9-2. New Mexico State is close on Idaho's heels at 5-6 with Hawai'I (3-10), San Jose State (2-10) and BSU (2-11) bringing up the rear.

The Vandals have a virtual lock on a spot in the WAC tournament (which takes only the top eight teams) but there will be crucial games for the rest of the regular season for Idaho. The trek to Nevada starts this Thursday at Fresno State, the Vandals' only game this week. The following week in a critical matchup Idaho will be at New Mexico State March 3 followed by a trip to Louisiana Tech March 5 to determine the Vandals' seeding fate in the WAC tournament which opens March 10 at the Orleans Hotel/arena in Las Vegas.

Taleni, speaking for the entire team, feels there's still a lot of basketball to be played and asks fans not to count out the Vandals.

"There's plenty of games," Talene said. "There's plenty more games left, and we've still got the tournament; so we can't hang our heads down…Don't worry. We will get back on track."

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