MOSCOW REPORT: Vandal Women Shredding BWC

Guard <b>Leilani Mitchell</b> (14 points, 9 assists, 4 steals, and 2 rebounds) and the Vandals saw a 7-point first-half lead turn into an 8-point deficit and trailed hot-shooting UC Irvine 36-33 at halftime, but in the final 20 minutes of action the Idaho Vandals rose to the challenge to defeat the visiting Anteaters 68-60 at the Cowan Spectrum Saturday night to wrap up the first half of the Big West Conference season.

Tonight's victory pushed the Vandals to 12-6 on the season and 7-2 in conference, one-half game behind league-leading UCSB which beat Cal State Fullerton (2-7) 71-47 tonight to improve to 8-1 BWC on the year. The Vandals are tied for second with Long Beach which moved to 7-2 by blasting Utah State (5-4) 63-36 in Logan, a game Long Beach led 23-4 at the half. Riverside (5-4) beat Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (3-6) 63-43 to remain tied for fourth place with Northridge. UOP is likewise 2-7 and Irvine 1-8.

The 7-2 conference start is the best by an Idaho team since 1985-86 Vandals, coached by Pat Dobratz, were 7-2 and eventually improved to 9-2 before finishing 11-3 in the Mountain West Conference. Dobratz' 1981-82 Vandals posted Idaho's best-ever conference mark going 14-0 in the Northwest Empire League.

Irvine, which had Utah State on the ropes Thursday night, shot 56% from the floor including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers offensively in the first half while the Vandals struggled shooting 45% and missing all 7 3-point attempts. They also turned the ball over 9 times in the first half. Coach Mike Divilbiss said the Anteaters did not surprise the Vandals.

"They gave Utah State a really, really good game Thursday night," he said. "We expected a good challenge from them. They're a division I school. They give scholarships...Somebody thought those kids could play. They're a fairly talented team. Last year, even with their record, a lot of the games they lost last year were very close, less than 5 points. We expected them to play well."

Divilbiss said there seemed to be a general lack of energy in the Cowan Spectrum for the first half. The announced attendance was 1,372, but the crowd appeared larger than the 1,577 officially in attendance for the Long Beach State game two nights earlier. "You could feel the lack of energy in the dome before the game even started compared to Thursday night," he said. "There (seemed to be) more people there tonight than there were Thursday, but there was way less energy. For the girls (the Long Beach game) was such an emotional took a great effort Thursday night. There's no question, and it's something we can repeat...but part of being a mature basketball player need to play every game like it's a big game so you're not having emotional highs and lows.

"That's the goal, yet you also know when you're playing Long Beach it (takes) a great effort. That took a lot of emotional, mental, and physical effort to play that game, and it takes a lot out of you. You'd like to call it up and play like that every night so you're consistent, but it took a lot for us. Tonight we showed a lot of maturity in the second half. I'm really, really proud of how our kids responded on the defensive end in particular."

Devilbiss said the Vandals' offensive problems in the first half seemed to affect their defense. "Coach Roueche told them afterwards that we've allowed this to trickle in a little into our team - sometimes if things aren't going well for us offensively we let it affect our defense, and that's not how we are successful," he said. "Our program has always been successful because we set the tone for the basketball game on the defensive end of the floor, and then our offense is created from that. It feeds off of our defense, and the second half was a really good example of that."

Idaho held Irvine to 28% from the floor in the second half, blocked 5 shots, and forced 11 turnovers committing just 5 turnovers themselves. Karly Felton's 3-pointer tied the game 65 seconds into the period and she followed that 45 seconds later with a jumper to give the Vandals the lead. Seconds later Faurholt blocked Haley Tull's shot attempt, Jessica Summers grabbed the rebounded and fired an outlet pass Leilani Mitchell who went coast-to-coast for a layup to extend the lead to 4, and the Vandals never again trailed.

Divilbiss and some of his players were asked to explain what the Vandals did at halfime to turn things around. Emily Faurholt, who wound up with 31 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, a steal and an assist said the Vandals "Talked a lot about heart...and putting it out there. It's not about x's and o's right now. It's about heart and doing what we know we have to do and putting forth that effort no matter who we're playing...I think our defense (fired us up) completely. It was awesome. Jessica was awesome defensively. Leilani and Heather (Thoelke) got into some girls, did a great job...I think defensively our fire really picked up. I think that's what lit us. It's fun to get steals and stops, and Jessica gets rebounds, and that allows me to run sometimes and do things that if I had to rebound and be in there all the time I couldn't do sometimes."

Mitchell said, "I think we were a little tired, and then after our halftime talk about coming out and playing hard, we really tried to step up our defense. Jessica got a lot of steals like Emily said, and we really tried to push the ball and make them run. Emily does a good job running the floor and Heather did a good job today too; so we got a lot of easy baskets, a lot of layins...Karly did a really good job on Angie Ned (who had 30 points at Utah State Thursday), and then Heather guarded (Melissa Jacob) -- I tried to guard her but I couldn't guard her so Heather did," Mitchell said with a laugh. "She (Jacob) was really good. She put up some of those 3's (3-5 first half, 3-6 in the second half, 28 points on the game). She made a lot of her shots tonight, but Heather did a good job."

"Defensively in the first half we didn't play as well," Thoelke added. "We weren't on an edge like we should have been, and in the second it picked up. I thought we kept the ball in the box better...defensively we did step up."

Divilbiss gave the players all the credit for the change. "That's not coming from me. That's the girls making their minds up that they're going to go," he said. "They know, and they're very mature. We have a lot of confidence in these kids. The game is very important to them, and what we do -- our journey and giving all to it -- is very important to this team. They're not getting any fire and brimstone from me. I don't do a lot of that. I'll bring a little bit of fire, but that wasn't the case today. We appealed to their sense of heart: 'What do you want from this? What are you willing to give,' because it's tough, and we knew it was going to be tough. All of us knew in the back of our minds before we started tonight that it was going to be one of 'those games'...That's how it felt I think playing for part of it. I think we knew going in we were going to have to gut it out. That's not from me. That's just little reminders at halftime. I didn't go in throwing beanbag chair around or anything like that."

The coach said this team is reaching a point in the season where the coaches' job is more to provide guidance and offer suggestions than to continue devising new plays and defensive strategies. "You get to a point in the season as a coach where you've got to give it to the players. You've taught them everything you can teach them. Your job now is just to help them. Like tonight: Basically what we did as a staff was to give them some ideas of things to run against their switching and some different things they were doing to us, and we're just there to help a little bit. We're getting to that point in the season where it's their season. That's something that I learned from Ed (Ceff, Lewis-Clark State College baseball coach) when I was down there that I think has really helped. I think my teams have done really, really well at the end on a consistent basis, and I think this team will do the same. Tonight one of the things I'm very pleased about is they really stepped up and took ownership. That's what they did tonight, and that's what I'm most proud of this evening."

Mitchell came close to a double-double for the Vandals with 14 points and 9 assists to go along with 4 steals and 2 rebounds. Thoelke had 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal; Felton had 7 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals; Summer had 6 points, 10 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 blocked shots; and Stephanie Sax had 2 points, 2 steals within a 2-minute span in the second half, and a rebound. Lauren Frazee and Ticey Westbrooks also saw action.

The BWC second half begins next week and the Vandals will host league-leading Santa Barbara Thursday at 7 in a critical game. Mitchell was asked her thoughts on the upcoming game. "I'm sure they want to kill us," she said, "but it's going to be a tough game. They're a really good team, and it's going to take a great effort again, but that's all we can do: Play hard, and whatever happens, happens."

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