Vandals down Fresno, prepare for Seattle U

WITH IDAHO'S 69-66 WIN OVER FRESNO STATE THURSDAY the Vandals (17-12, 9-7 WAC, tied 3rd) are guaranteed a fourth seed going into the WAC Tournament, and could improve to the third seed depending on other WAC games this weekend. This Saturday the Vandals celebrate Senior Night in the Cowan Spectrum with a non-conference home game against Seattle University (7:05pm PST tipoff) in the season finale.

Following Idaho's crucial 69-66 win over Fresno State Thursday night, two Vandal players and Coach Don Verlin met with the media for post-game questions and comments. During the game the Vandals had exhibited what has become their trademark this year: Solid team play. For the media, though, there were some divergent views on the character of the Vandals 17th win of the season. Asked to describe the win, here's what they said:
· Landon Tatum (4-for-4 free throws, 4 points, 5 assists, 1 blocked shot, 1 steal): "It was like last night Utah State played New Mexico State, and their coach (Stew Morrill) said 'You've got to win ugly games.' This was one of those games that was just ugly to win."

· Shawn Henderson (2-for-3 on three's, 2-for-2 on FTs, 12 points, 2 steals, 2 rebounds): "It's always ugly when you're down (13). I guess it's kinda cute when you come back, though, from being down and still win. You don't really want to be down at all. It is an ugly win…kinda pretty, but it all works out for us. That's all that matters."

· Coach Don Verlin (whose team has clinched at least a tie for 3rd in the WAC; secured 3rd or 4th seed and a first round by next week's WAC tournament; is now 17-12 on the season) stated the following very emphatically: "No win is an ugly win. Every win's a good win. You've gotta give Fresno State all the credit tonight…(Fresno State coach) Steve Cleveland had his team ready to go and they did a good job dictating the tempo of the game. We were fortunate to win, but no win is an ugly win. They're all good. They all go on the right side. Take 'em all."
No matter how you assess the final product, the Vandals got off to a dismal start and fell behind by 13 points with 10:49 left in the first half. During that time they committed six turnovers and missed six of their first nine shots from the field as Fresno State raced out to a 22-9 lead with 10:31 left in the first half. The Bulldogs dominated going 10 for 17 from the floor, held an 8-5 rebound edge and committed just one turnover during that span. But the Vandals kept their composure, executed the fundamentals on offense and righted the ship outscoring Fresno 21-12 in the final 9-1/2 minutes to trail 34-30 at the half.

The comeback continued in the second half and was completed when Jeff Ledbetter was fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three free throws to knot the score at 38-38. Fresno answered with back-to-back field goals to regain the lead and held a three-point edge until Landon Tatum sank two free throws at 13:52 to make it 46-45 Fresno. The Vandals got the break they needed at the other end of the floor when Bulldog freshman guard Tyler Johnson missed back-to-back free throws. Stephen Madison flashed into the paint to grab the rebound and the Vandals set up on offense. After working the ball for 30 seconds Tatum spotted Kyle Barone heading for the hoop and his pass was on the money for a Barone slam and a 47-46 Idaho lead.

Momentum had turned. With the student-dominated crowd of 2,046 on its feet after the Barone slam, Fresno missed a jump shot. Barone rebounded and seconds later took a pass from Madison and hit a short jumper to make it 49-46 Vandals. A Luiz Toledo free throw made it 50-46 Idaho, and seconds later the Vandals got another boost when Bulldog Garrett Johnson missed back-to-back free throws and a Barone layup 20 seconds later upped the lead to 52-46.

The Bulldogs, however, weren't done, taking a 55-54 lead on a dunk by Jonathan Willis with 7:27 remaining, and from there the game turned into a see-saw battle that was decided in the final 74 seconds. Fresno led 64-63 on a Johnson putback with 1:14 remaining. On the next possession Idaho took shot clock down to 7 seconds and a called time out. Brandon Wiley replaced Barone in the lineup. Action resumed and four seconds later Henderson drove the key, drew a foul and sank both free throws to make it 67-64 with 17.1 seconds left. The Vandals immediately called time out, their last of the game.

As the teams returned to the floor and the officials stepped in to hand the ball to Fresno the Bulldogs chose to use their last time out to set up their final strategy. As play resumed, the Vandal defense set up a full court press. Bulldog Jonathan Wills found a seam and drove in for a layup, but was whistled for a traveling violation with 10.1 seconds left.

Fresno then threw up a full court press of its own. The Vandals got the ball in to Wiley near mid court who promptly relayed the ball to a wide open Barone who powered home a dunk to make it 69-64 with 6.4 seconds left. There was a stoppage of play as officials viewed a replay to determine how much time should be on the clock. The Bulldogs took advantage to set up a press break that led to a breakaway by Garrett Johnson. Wiley was back on defense under the Fresno basket and tried to avoid contact but was called for a foul on the layup with 3.9 seconds left and the Vandals clinging to a three point lead. Garrett stepped to the line but missed the free throw which was rebounded by Henderson who ran out the clock to preserve the win.

The second half statistics told the story: After having trouble protecting leads late in games throughout the season, this time the Vandals managed to protect a slim lead that fluctuated between 3-points and 1-point down the stretch by making free throws (15 of 18 in the second half), eliminating turnovers (four in the second half, 10 on the game) and generally finding a way to win a game with a lot riding on the outcome...even if not everyone on the team was aware of the importance of the game in terms of conference seeding.

In the media conference, Henderson was asked if it was good to settle the conference seeding issues and secure a first round bye in the WAC tournament. A surprised look came over his face as he said, "Is that what that was? That's what happened tonight? Oh, I don't know," he said with a laugh. "We don't try to look too far ahead. We've still got to play tonight and Saturday's game. Well, Saturday's game really doesn't matter for the tournament, but we had to play tonight. I think the coaches knew but we never talked about it.

Verlin was asked if he had downplayed the seeding issue and admitted, "Yeah, I didn't talk any about that. They know." He was told that Henderson said he did not know about it and as everyone in the room chuckled Verlin amended his response. "Shawn didn't know? You know, most of 'em knew. Most of them on my radio show knew. I've always felt like…you focus in on one game at a time and the game at hand, and think about the process," Verlin said. "Don't think about the result, and that's just kinda been me. I thought getting ready for this game was the most important thing. The most important thing tonight is getting ready for Seattle U. That's how we've kinda approached the whole season. In our notebook it says, 'Win our next game.' When we were at Montana and we got beat by 42, I came back and pulled out the book and said, 'Win our next game.' When we beat Utah State at home I pulled out the notebook and said, 'Win our next game.' That's kinda the philosophy we have. Let's go to work every day and see how good we can get and take every game as a challenge. I know it's a cliché, but that's how we do it."

Barone led all scorers with 19 points making 9-of-12 shots in the game (including a perfect 5-of-5 attempts in the second half). He also had 5 rebounds, an assist and blocked shot. Henderson was the only other Vandal to score in double figures with 12 to go with two rebounds and two steals. Three other Vandals checked out with nine points each: Ledbetter (also credited with two assists, two rebounds and a steal), Wiley (the team leader in rebounds with seven as well as one assist, one block and one steal), and Toledo who also had five rebounds, three assists and a steal.

The front line of Barone, Wiley and Toledo had problems with Fresno's double and triple teaming in the low post before finally settling into a better rhythm midway through the first half. "We just started executing better," Verlin said. "We have certain fundamentals that we work on when people double us, and I thought our guys were just moving too fast, just didn't have enough patience. In the second half we chinned the ball and we picked it up and we were able to kick it out and hit some open guys. Toledo hit Jeff (Ledbetter) once, Kyle (Barone) hit a couple guys and it's just executing your fundamentals. I thought we were just moving too fast and turning the ball over coming out of the post early in the game."

Deremy Geiger had a solid night finishing with seven points and two rebounds, Tatum had four points, five assists, a block and a steal. And redshirt freshman Stephen Madison, while not scoring, came up big in the paint with five rebounds and added two assists.

The Vandals were able to stay in contention throughout the game despite the rocky start thanks to key team statistics (stats that also underlined the team's maturity): The 13-point deficit was the largest deficit Idaho has overcome in a victory this year, and the nine total fouls (only two in the first half) were the fewest fouls the Vandals have committed this season. "I didn't realize we only committed nine fouls," Verlin said. "I kinda wish we'd be a little more aggressive…but a 13 point deficit. I didn't realize that was the biggest. That's just a tribute to our guys hanging in there. I couldn't be prouder of 'em to keep grinding. Sometimes when you get down like that, especially at home, you start forcing things and not taking good shots and not doing the fundamental things you have to do to win the ball game, and I thought we did a good job of that after about the first 12 minutes of the game."

Other team stats: The Bulldogs outscored the Vandals 44-32 in the paint, held a 16-15 edge in points off turnovers, and led 17-9 in second chance points and 25-23 in bench points. Idaho, on the other hand out rebounded the 'Dogs 29-28, and shot 83.3% from the free throw line (16-of-20 including 15-of-18 in the second half) to an icy 40% (4 of 10) for the visitors. The Vandals shot 51.1% from the field to 50% for Fresno, and held a 6-4 edge in fast break points.

The Vandals are the first WAC team to conclude conference play and will host Seattle Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. for senior night when Ledbetter, Henderson, Wiley and Travis Blackstock will be honored.

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