Sparked by outstanding defense and key free throw shooting in the closing seconds of the game, the Lady Vandals beat UC Santa Barbara 56-52 in the Cowan Spectrum Thursday night becoming the first Big West Conference team since 1993-94 to sweep the Gauchos in the regular season.">
Sparked by outstanding defense and key free throw shooting in the closing seconds of the game, the Lady Vandals beat UC Santa Barbara 56-52 in the Cowan Spectrum Thursday night becoming the first Big West Conference team since 1993-94 to sweep the Gauchos in the regular season.">

Vandal Women Basketball Tied For First Place

Can you say, "League-leading Idaho Vandals?"<br> <br> Sparked by outstanding defense and key free throw shooting in the closing seconds of the game, the Lady Vandals beat UC Santa Barbara 56-52 in the Cowan Spectrum Thursday night becoming the first Big West Conference team since 1993-94 to sweep the Gauchos in the regular season.

That victory, coupled with Cal State Northridge's stunning 66-63 upset at Long Beach State pushed the Vandals into a first-place tie in the conference standings with Santa Barbara at 8-2 while Long Beach dropped to 7-3.

With 1,634 vocal fans looking on, the game pitted two of the top three teams in the conference. Santa Barbara was looking to avenge Idaho's monumental 75-62 win at Santa Barbara last month. The Vandals were out to underline their position as one of the top teams in the Big West as well as a seedng advantage over the Gauchos at the Big West tournament next month.

The game was evenly matched. Santa Barbara had a big height advantage; the Vandals the edge in quickness. The teams seemed tight at the outset, probably a tribute to the defensive prowess of both clubs. There were 4 lead changes in the first 12:26 until, leading 15-12, the Vandals – as they so often have done at home this year – exploded. Using a blistering transition game they outscored the Gauchos 15-2 in the next 4:49 leaving the Gauchos gasping for breath and down by 17, 31-14.

But it wasn't going to be that easy. That's why Santa Barbara has been one of the top women's programs in the country for the last decade. The Gauchos fought back to trail by 10 at the half and continued to fight back after intermission finally tying the game at 41-41 on a steal and layup by Erin O'Bryan. That meant lead change #8 coming up, and Leilani Mitchell set up Emily Faurholt for a 5-foot jump shot to snap a 4:21 Vandal scoreless streak and put Idaho ahead for good.

The lead hovered around 5 points until the Gauchos put on their final push of the night. They cut the lead to 52-50 on two free throws by Kristen Mann with 1:19 left. The Vandals misfired on a 3-point attempt with 50 seconds left and the Gauchos rebounded. They moved down the floor into their halfcourt offense, but suddenly, with 34 seconds remaining in regulation, Gaucho Karena Bonds tried to work the ball into Autumn Nichols in the post. Freshman Lauren Frazee, playing in place of Heather Summers who had fouled out, deflected the pass out to Karly Felton. The Vandals moved to the offensive zone and called time out with 24.3 left on the clock to set up the critical play.

They put the ball in Mitchell's hands. The amazing point guard's assignment was to run time off the clock. With about 8 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Mitchell set the play in motion. She wanted to get the ball into the post but that option wasn't available so she cut to the basket and launched a layup try. Against three taller Gaucho defenders the shot was off the mark, but Mitchell shifted directions immediately after shooting, came back onto the floor, and snagged the rebound getting fouled in the process to step to the line with 8.1 seconds left in the game. She sank both to give Idaho a 54-52 lead.

After a time out, Santa Barbara worked the ball quickly down the floor and scored on a jumper by Mia Fisher with 2.1 seconds left and quickly called time out. The Vandals inbounded to Mitchell who was fouled with 1.6 seconds remaining making both ends of the 1-and-1 to seal the win.

After the game Vandal coach Mike Divilbiss was asked to comment about Leilani Mitchell and the decisive sequence of events in the waning moments of the contest, specifically the offensive rebound against players who were 9 to 11 inches taller than she is. "She's an awfully gifted young lady," he said. "God doesn't give everybody that much ability, talent, quickness. It was a pretty impressive play…We called a play for her to make a read. We talked about it in the time out, trying to wait until there were 2 seconds to go on the shot clock so there was time for a put back or so we didn't violate on the shot clock because we didn't want a dead ball. We wanted time to go if we didn't make it. That was our thinking. There were about 8 seconds on the shot clock when she went. She was trying to make a read, and it was there. She turned the corner and it was there. Santa Barbara did a nice job getting there and it was a pretty challenged layup, and she made a great read then went back and got the rebound."

Mitchell, in retrospect, said she thought she may have misread the play. "They were just denying our high post; so going in was open for me. I thought I had it, but then the other girl, the help side, came over and I probably should have passed to Emily (Faurholt)."

Faurholt said she was glad Mitchell drove for the basket and drew the foul on the rebound. Asked if the Vandals feel confident in that situation, Faurholt said "Yeah, we do. We don't worry about it... We like her at the free throw line at the end." Felton also had good things to say about Frazee on the critical sequence to set up the winning play by Mitchell. "She (Frazee) got around the post and hit it, and I was just there. I didn't do anything...She fronted the post and did an amazing job."

Both defenses exerted themselves, and the Gaucho rebounding corps reaped the benefits. The Vandals held Santa Barbara to a shocking 29% from the floor (20-for-70) including 16% (3-for-19) on 3-point tries. Idaho hit 32% (18-57 from the floor and 27% (6 for 23) outside the arc. That meant a lot of rebounds (98 to be exact) and Santa Barbara held a 62-36 edge including 22 offensive rebounds.

Veteran Gaucho coach Mark French put the numbers into perspective. "It wasn't a beautiful basketball game, but you have a chance to win ugly games and still feel pretty good about them if you give a great effort, and we didn't give as great an effort," he said. "This is back-to-back games now where Idaho has out-hustled us, out prepared us. I mean from the coaching staff to the players I think they were better prepared. They didn't shoot real well either. They shot 32%, got outrebounded by 23, and won. That's a great credit to their women and their staff with the kind of heart and effort they have, and that's something that we're going to have to match if we expect to beat them should be have an opportunity to face them again in the tournament."

Divilbiss was asked about the rebounding statistics: "They are a tremendous rebounding basketball team," he said. "We really thought one of the keys to the game was to keep them off the offensive boards. I know it may not look like it in the numbers, but it really was a focus and the kids worked...very hard, and (Santa Barbara) still got offensive rebounds. They go and fetch it really, really well. We're just not a very big basketball team, and sometimes that size is a factor, but if you have good technique and push back and block out, and leave the zone and block out and do good technique, size can be overcome a little bit, and I thought our effort was good. I think we can get a little bit better with our technique at times."

Faurholt, the game's leading scorer, posted a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds as well as a blocked shot. Mitchell checked out with 15 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. Heather Thoelke also reached double digits with 13 points and added 3 blocked shots, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Summers, saddled with 4 fouls much of the second half before fouling out with 2:03 left in the game, had 4 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 2 steals. Felton had 3 points, 4 assists, 5 rebounds, and a steal. Frazee had 2 rebounds to go with her crucial steal and Stephanie Sax had a steal and an assist.

Mitchell, who lit up the Gauchos for 33 points and 8 rebounds in the first meeting last month, was a focal point for Santa Barbara last night. "Comparatively we had a heck of a game against (Mitchell) tonight. She only got 6 free throws and 15 points, but we accomplished some of what we wanted to do with her," French said. "Again it's just hard to dig yourself a hole like that. We've all seen that lots of times where we had to expend so much energy to fight and claw our way back, and then after we got there we kinda ran out of emotional juice. Again, that's a credit to Idaho for coming out right off the bat and really sticking it to us. We were lucky to be only down 10 at halftime."

In other Big West action Thursday Utah State improved to 6-4 by beating Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 57-52 dropping the Mustangs to 3-7. UC Riverside likewise moved to 6-4 with a 67-59 win at Cal State Fullerton (2-9), and UC Irvine improved to 2-8 with a 61-58 win over Pacific (2-8).

Divilbiss and French have a tremendous amount of respect for each other and the respective programs. Divilbiss was asked about the Vandals being the first team in 11 years to sweep Santa Barbara in the regular season. "That speaks about how good a program Santa Barbara is and what a tremendous job Mark has done with that program, and the class that he and his players exhibit is very, very evident. That (first sweep in 11 years) speaks more to Santa Barbara's program than it does ours. I mean, I'm really proud of our kids and what we're doing right now, but to sustain that kind of effort and that kind of excellence over a decade is darn hard to do, and you have to have tremendous respect for that."

French commented on the last regular season meeting between the two schools with Idaho moving to the WAC next year. "That's okay with me," he said with a smile and a chuckle. "I say that facetiously. I've been very disappointed our last two times here, but I'm very sorry Idaho's leaving our conference. They're great for our conference. They're great for us. They'll make us better this year. They made us better last year. I understand it's a great move for the University of Idaho, but I'm very sorry we won't get a chance to compete against them in regular season. I certainly look forward to one more opportunity to compete against them - hopefully - in Anaheim."

French was asked why the Gauchos have problems with the Vandals. "They're small and they're quick, and I think that poses (problems for) us. We can't bring our size to bear quite as much on them as we do some other people, but I think they're well coached, and they have two really, really good players, and they have just enough roll playing from their other kids. They're a very good team. I'm not sure why we are unsuccessful and Riverside and Cal Poly are," he said. "I guess I'd have to talk to Riverside and Cal Poly. I probably WILL be talking to Riverside and Cal Poly. I've studied those tapes very carefully. I'm not sure, but I think we have to be careful about trying to become Riverside or Cal Poly. I think the best bet for us is, if we have an opportunity to play against Idaho, to play as hard as they do for 40 minutes, and on a neutral court it should be a very entertaining contest."

The coaches were asked about the Vandal scoring outburst in the first half. "We executed very well offensively and some kids jumped up and made some baskets," Divilbiss said. "I think we shot the ball really well in that stretch. We got some transition baskets off that too that I think were created from our defense. I thought we defended very well. We got some stops, and Leilani did a really nice job of pushing the ball, getting us some stuff in transition. That was important too."

French said, " I was disappointed in our defensive effort in the first 15 minutes of the game, and you certainly would have to credit Idaho for coming out and really taking it to us in the first 15 minutes of the game. We had a pretty good idea how they were going to attack us because they were really successful on our home floor in the Thunderdome and they came right out and did exactly pretty much what we thought they were going to do and continued to it really successfully; so I was disappointed in that, that they were able to come out with more energy than we were.

Kristen Mann, averaging 21.6 per game for the Gauchos, was held to 16 by Faurholt and company, also spoke about that critical scoring run. ""I was very disappointed with the way we came out in the first half," she said. "It took us way too long to bring our game, and you can't do that, especially against Idaho. That's totally a credit to them. They were ready to go and we weren't, and they were more prepared than us. Hopefully we'll get a chance to see them in the Big West Tournament and go at it another time."

Faurholt was asked if the win still felt like an upset for the Vandals. "I think it does. I really think it feels like an upset. Obviously they have not been swept in 11 years. It's an upset, and any time you play Santa Barbara they're very confident and they're so talented, and they play well together. It's an upset because they're so good."

Mann twisted an ankle in the first half but stayed in the game logging 39 minutes. "I just twisted my ankle," she said. "Brandy (Richardson) actually stepped on my foot for a rebound, and I went to jump, and I didn't really leave the floor." Asked if it had any effect on her shooting, she simply said, "No." Asked later about the poor shooting by the Gauchos, she said, "(We) just didn't have it tonight...I think I should have been inside a little bit more and used different aspects of my game. I took a lot of outside shots, and that was probably my fault not recognizing that earlier. Their defense is very similar to ours. We face that kind of defense every day in practice; so I don't really think it was their defense that had an affect on my shooting game.

The Vandals host Cal Poly Saturday. The Mustangs beat the Vandals 79-62 in the first round. Divilbiss was asked if he thought the Vandals might experience a letdown after tonight's big win. ""No. We experienced a little of that last week, he said. "I think the girls understand what needs to happen Saturday."

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