Vandals down Utah State 57-54

IN FRONT OF A HIGH-ENERGY STUDENT SECTION Saturday night in the Cowan Spectrum on the Idaho campus, the Vandals battled Utah State in a close game featuring six lead changes. Idaho trailed by as much as nine in the second half but fought back to take the lead on STEPHEN MADISON'S three-pointer with 26 seconds left in the game, and won when USU's last second three-pointer was off the mark.

Mac Hopson summed things up pretty succinctly a few years ago in Don Verlin's first year as Idaho men's basketball head coach. Utah State and coach Stew Morrill had just handed the Vandals a 62-53 loss, and Hopson was asked to talk about what it was like for the Vandals to face Utah State where Verlin had served as an assistant to Morrill for nine years.

"It was like playing ourselves," Hopson said. The warmup drills were the same, the offensive plays were the same, and the defensive schemes were the same. There were no surprises.

At the Cowan Spectrum Saturday night, teams coached by Verlin and Morrill hooked up again. The result was a hard fought, grind-it-out basketball game that came down to the final seconds. A UI-student-dominated crowd of 2,359 was treated to a game that might have been rough around the edges but wound up with a satisfying finish (if you're an Idaho fan). If you root for the Blue Aggies, the calendars are circled for the return matchup February 24 in Logan, Utah.

The Vandals, trailing 29-25 at the half, came back strong in the second half as Djim Bandoumel came off the bench to ignite his team on the glass and in the paint. Utah State led by as many as nine with 15:26 left in the game, but the Vandals kept chopping away at the lead. The game was tied five times and there were six lead changes.

The last four minutes were intense. The Aggies led 53-47 after two Danny Berger free throws. Deremy Geiger hit a jumper in the key to make it 53-49 at the 3:45 mark. Then the Aggies tried to work time off the clock. Just inside three minutes Kyle Barone's shot was blocked by USU's Ben Clifford, but Bandoumel collected the offensive rebound and scored to make it 53-51 with 2:54 remaining. He was fouled but missed the free throw.

The Aggies again ran time off the clock using the same offensive patterns Morrill has used for years. But with 2:31 remaining Ben Clifford threw the ball away for the Aggies, and 28 second later Barone was fouled in the paint and sank two free throws to tie the game at 53 with 2:03 remaining.

The two teams continued the chess match.

Brocketh Pane turned the ball over on a Landon Tatum steal but Deremy Geiger missed a jumper with 1:14 remaining. Kyle Barone grabbed the offensive rebound and called time out.

Out of the time out the Vandals worked the ball into the hands of sophomore standout Stephen Madison who, despite a first half injury, was turning in his usual solid game…until with 44.3 seconds left in the game Danny Berger stole the ball. In a diving attempt to steal it back Madison was called for a foul. In the double bonus Berger made the first free throw to make it 54-53 Utah State, but missed the second shot was and Bandoumel pulled in his sixth, and perhaps most important, rebound.

At the other end of the floor the Vandals ran their offensive plays (which, of course, Utah State knew by heart) until with 24 seconds remaining Barone flipped the ball out to Madison on the right wing in three-point land. Madison caught the ball and his rhythm was perfect as his three-point shot found the mark to make it 56-54 Idaho with 26 seconds remaining.

The Aggies called time out with 20.9 left.

When play resumed USU worked a play. Pane drove the ball down the lane but Tatum had established position and drew the foul with 11.2 left. Utah State used a time out to develop a strategy which amounted to Mansa Habeeb being fouled as soon as Madison in-bounded the ball to him. He missed the first free throw but made the second, giving Idaho the 57-54 lead.

A last-gasp three-point try by Aggie Preston Medlin was off the mark and Bandoumel pulled in the final rebound of the night to preserve the 57-54 win.

Verlin, who had notched his first win against Utah State in the Cowan Spectrum last February using a surprising box-and-one defense, contemplated the satisfying victory. "I'm just glad we pulled the rabbit out of the hat tonight," he said. "You look at the stat sheet, I really don't know how we won. I'll tell you this, we made some huge winning plays down the stretch. I thought our defense was stellar the last four minutes of the game. Landon Tatum made a big steal and took a huge charge. Stephen (Madison) made a heck of a shot. He waited until the right time to make it. I couldn't be happier for our basketball team, because we had to battle like crazy to get that one.

"I think our team is starting to mature. It was a school yard brawl tonight. I mean, they knew what we were doing. We knew what they were doing. There was a lot of strategy going on, and we were just fortunate to win. I think our guys are getting more seasoned. We've played in a number of close games and it was great tonight to find a way to win."

Asked by the media to comment on winning against the Aggies, Verlin said, "It's really special (to win) because they've been so good for so long. They're not as far off as they think they are (a surprising 10-10 season record). They're extremely hard to play. They're extremely well coached. They have a lot of pride in their program. You look at their media release and they don't lose back-to-back games. They happened to lose one Thursday night (at Seattle) and I knew what we were in for. I've been on those bus rides and in those locker rooms. I knew that we were going to get everything they had, and I think we were very fortunate tonight to find a way to win."

The crowd was the second largest of the year behind the 3321 on hand in December for the WSU game. Saturday, however, was the largest single-game turnout of UI students of the year, and the Vandals and their coaches were extremely happy with the loud and supportive students in the bleachers along the north sideline.

Late in the second half, a group of those students broke out in a chant during a time out that went something like this: "I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win."

Were they expressing confidence in the Vandals? Yes. But to those who have followed WAC basketball know they were using a chant that has been virtually trademarked by Utah State. It happens before and/or during every home game the Aggies play. You can be sure that the Aggie students have noted it and will remember it in Logan next month. However, in the Don Verlin era at Idaho this game could also be a landmark that will be important to future Vandal teams.

Following Idaho's last time out, Verlin could be seen on the sideline imploring the fans to support the Vandals. "The crowd was absolutely… maybe, some of the difference in the game," he said. "I thought when we got down a few times, and when we made some runs, they got behind us. They spurred us with energy. I thought that was huge. I thought our student section was awesome, and I think that's huge.

"I was telling Evan (Ellis) on the radio interview that when I walked out to shake coach's (Stew Morrill) hand he said, 'Your student section was pretty good tonight. It looked good tonight. It looks similar to ours.' It's not quite there yet, but it was great to have 'em there, and I'll tell you what. We need 'em every night out. We've got two big home games coming up next week, and when they come it makes a huge difference for us. No question about it. I couldn't be happier for 'em. I was glad we could repay 'em with a win."

The Vandals are now 10-9 on the season and 3-2 in the WAC. They will host San Jose State January at 7:05 p.m. and Hawai'I January 28 at 8:05 p.m. Based on his comments Verlin is hoping for the same level of support his team saw Saturday night.

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