Vandals win 18 games, most since '94

IN A GAME REMARKABLY SIMILAR TO IDAHO'S WIN OVER FRESNO STATE THURSDAY, the Vandals got off to a slow start on Senior Night against Seattle U Saturday in the Cowan Spectrum. Down 24-12 early, the Vandals rallied back and won 78-69 pulling away. Now Idaho (18-12, 9-7 WAC) sets their sights on the WAC Tourney, earning a first round bye before playing Thursday at noon Pacific Time live on ESPN-U.

Idaho's final home game of the season could have been considered by some a "land mine game" with the Vandals going up against non-conference opponent Seattle University on senior night, but the game turned out to be surprisingly similar to the Vandal Thursday win over Fresno State slow start, catch up early in the second half, and win going away.

The final score was 78-69 as the Vandals, who closed out the regular season with an 18-12 overall record, tallied the most wins for an Idaho team since the 1993-94 Vandals went 18-10, and the second most since Idaho was 24-8 in 1992-93.

In other WAC action Saturday, New Mexico State defeated Nevada 77-68 to capture the third seed in the conference tournament. Idaho will be seeded fourth, but still draws a first round bye and will open the tournament Thursday at 12 noon Pacific Time against the winner of the first round game pitting #5 seed Hawaii against #8 seed San Jose State. The Vandal game will be telecast live on ESPNU and the official brackets will be announced Sunday.

Happy with the win, Vandal coach Don Verlin said the Vandals have allowed their last two opponents to shoot 50% or better from the floor, a trend that can't be allowed to continue in the WAC tournament next week. "We can't have those starts in the WAC Tournament, but our guys played very hard in the second half and we were able to get to some loose balls," Verlin told the media after Saturday's game.

How similar were the Fresno and Seattle U games? Idaho trailed Seattle by 12 points, 24-12, at the 10:56 mark of the first half Saturday night. Thursday Fresno State held a 13-point lead at the 10:49 mark of the first half. Then, after halftime, against Seattle the Vandals caught the Redhawks and tied the game 48-48 at the 17:13 mark of the second half. Against Fresno, the tie came at 38-38 at the 17:13 mark.

Idaho, winners of six of their last eight games, showed grit in both of these games to power back from big early deficits. But one can only hope they come out with their more characteristic early energy in the WAC Tournament, because comebacks like this will be much harder to come by when advancing in the tournament is at stake.

Idaho had a lot of trouble shutting down Seattle's freshman sharpshooter Sterling Carter who went 5-for-8 from three-point range and scored 18 of the Redhawks' 40 first half points. But some second half defensive adjustments by Idaho brought the game under control for the Vandals. Also helping turn the game around was a solid performance by true freshman Stephen Madison who collected a career high 12 points off the bench to go along with three assists, three rebounds and a huge block that stuffed a Seattle fast break.

"I thought he gave us a huge lift, I thought he was aggressive," Verlin said of Madison. "He turned it over a couple too many times, but I thought he was one of the differences in the game for us tonight."

Deremy Geiger led Idaho with 15 points, while Shawn Henderson celebrated his senior send-off with 13 points, three rebounds and a five-assist, zero-turnover effort. Jeff Ledbetter, also in his final home game, scored nine points and assisted four buckets.

"We just grinded this one out. This was one of those games where it really took a lot," Geiger said. "We had to grind every possession, we couldn't give up, we couldn't relax, because we knew they were a good team that could get back into it just like that."

As a team, Idaho hit 53.2 percent from the field and hit 44 percent of its 3-pointers. The key was in the second half, where the Vandals went 7-of-12 from long range and 10-of-12 from the free throw line. They made 17 of their 23 total charity attempts.

As has been the standard this season, Idaho shared the ball very well. The Vandals tied a season high with 23 assists on 25 made shots, and six players registered at least three dishes in the game.

Seattle hit 53.1 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range, but went 11-of-17 (.647) at the free throw line and turned it over 18 times.

While there's still more basketball to be played, Verlin said that he was glad to send his seniors out with a victory in their final home game.

"This senior group has been unbelievable," Verlin said. "With a whole new team this year with basically six years of Division-I experience, I relied on the seniors. All year long, they kept this group together. I hope we play four or five more (games), but I'm sad to see them go."

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