Vandal Women dominate Riverside; now 3rd BWC

In what could easily be one of the key games of this season, the Lady Vandals uncorked a 12-2 run in the last 5:19 of the first half, hit a 3 pointer to open scoring in the second half, and took total control of the ball game from that point on defeating UC Riverside 70-59 in the Cowan Spectrum Saturday night.

The victory, which avenged a 17-point Highlander win in Riverside, moved the Vandals back into third place in the Big West Standings. More importantly, it snapped a 2-game losing streak including a bitterly disappointing home loss to Fullerton Thursday night.

The Vandals altered their starting lineup for Riverside as freshman post player Jessica Summers was diagnosed with pneumonia. Redshirt freshman Ticey Westbrooks got the starting nod giving the Vandals a smaller, quicker lineup. Coach Mike Divilbiss used the opportunity to turn up the defensive intensity throughout the game against a quick, senior-dominated Highlander squad.

"I thought the kids worked their butts off," Divilbiss said. "They played very, very hard defensively. I thought they made a tremendous effort. Riverside does a tremendous job running their offense. They're very hard to guard. They're very patient. They execute very well. They make you defend for long periods of time, and I think it takes a very, very strong commitment to defend like that for 40 minutes."

The game was tight throughout the first half with 6 lead changes. Riverside owned a 23-21 lead when Emily Faurholt hit Westbrooks on the perimeter with a pinpoint pass and she promptly drained a 3-pointer to make it 24-23 Vandals with 5:19 left in the half. That started a 9-0 run featuring 2 free throws by Faurholt and Leilani Mitchell and a driving baseline layup by Heather Thoelke which was set up by a Mitchell steal. . Riverside answered with a field goal at the 1:25 mark, but 17 seconds later Faurholt fired another pass out to the perimeter and this time Mitchell drained the 3 to give the Vandals an 8-point halftime lead.

The Vandals, who were outrebounded 19-11 (including no individual offensive rebounds) in the first half, cashed in their first offensive rebound of the game just seconds into the second half. Mitchell missed a jump shot but Karly Felton grabbed the rebound and fired to Thoelke who sank a 3-pointer to build the lead to 11. Idaho then threw up a full-court press and played tight, aggressive man-to-man defense. Riverside continued to battle and stayed within shouting distance until Thoelke and Faurholt canned back-to-back 3-pointers off assists from Felton to put the game out of reach.

Over the final 20 minutes the Vandals outrebounded the Highlanders 18-11 including a surprising 9-4 edge in offensive rebounds despite the smaller lineup. Asked if there were any changes made at halftime to trigger the reversal, Thoelke said "No, we didn't change anything. We sent more to the boards this game than we did last game, but it just worked out." Divilbiss said, "We are much quicker (with Westbrooks starting). We're a different basketball team. To start the smallest lineup we've started all year and we finally outrebounded somebody. It's interesting. Rebounding is a game of quickness."

Summers originally was not slated to suit up but recovered sufficiently later in the afternoon to limited playing time. "Jessica has pneumonia," Divilbiss said. "We weren't going to play her at all. This morning she looked like heck at the shootaround, and we were not planning on playing her at all. She got on her antibiotics and got some rest this afternoon and woke up with all kinds of energy. She saw the doctor and he thought limited minutes. I'm really impressed with her. She wanted to play. It was really neat."

Asked after the game if Summers would regain her starting position when she is fully recovered, Divilbiss said that would probably be the case, but he also pointed out that having Westbrooks start and play an outstanding game (6 points, a team-high 6 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals in 35 minutes) gave the Vandals some valuable options for future games. "There are some teams where matchups are sometimes a real question mark for us, and this team (Riverside) is a team that we needed the quickness with; so it's kind of a blessing for us," he said. "I've been looking for an opportunity to give Ticey an opportunity to get her feet under her again.

"We've always known that Ticey had the ability. It hasn't been a question of that at all, and it's just been a matter of being in a situation where she had an opportunity where I had to be patient and let her get her feet under her and let her play and get some confidence. She stepped up huge tonight when her teammates needed her. She came all day with the mentality when she showed up here that she was going to be counted on tremendously because Jessica wasn't going to go. Ticey is going to be an integral part of this. I think I said this in the paper early in league play that Ticey is going to be an integral part of this program, and she just needed an opportunity to get her feet under her and get some minutes and get some confidence back. Our team has expanded. It's a real plus for us I think."

"I love playing defense; so it was really exciting to hear that we were going to press and get up, and I think that helped," Westbrooks said. Whenever I play good defense I think it helps my offense and confidence. I think that helped out a lot."

The specter of Thursday's disappointing loss against Fullerton was erased by the team's strong showing against Riverside. Divilbiss was asked about the change. "I think the best way to describe it that the kids stayed in their roles. They played in their roles and stayed in their roles and just brought their gifts to the team. When we do that we're special. We're a special basketball team when we do that. Sometimes we just get a little lost…we forget sometimes what our gifts are and to make sure we bring them."

The Vandals also seemed to be more aggressive offensively driving the lane repeatedly challenging Riverside in the paint. Faurholt elaborated. "The people who were supposed to attack attacked, the people who are really supposed to be aggressive, and that's what coach said. It's just in our roles. We have people we want to be aggressive, and when they get the ball they're shooting it and taking it to the hole. Then there are people we want to take that open shot. When we've had four or five great passes and they've got a wide-open look, that's what we want them to do. I think as a team we played in our roles. People who needed to be aggressive took it to the hole and did a great job with what they were supposed to do."

"My feeling going into the game tonight was whether we won or lost, and I mean this in all sincerity, if the players got back to playing in their roles and bringing their gifts to our team, I was going to be satisfied," the coach said. "I will be satisfied every night that they do that. I don't care what the board says. It'll take care of itself a lot of nights for us. Right now I'm very, very pleased because the kids are in their roles and they're bringing their gifts to the team and sharing with each other, and that's a beautiful thing to watch. I get a lot of personal joy out of watching the kids do that and watching the game. I love the game, and when they bring their gifts to the game and you see us play with everyone giving their gifts we do some beautiful basketball things. We really do. I don't think you can be in the game 20-some years and not appreciate the game."

The Vandals shot 43% from the floor on the game and hit 9 of 19 3-pointers for an outstanding 47%. That latter figure was a key to the victory as Riverside shot 49% from the floor including 14 of 26 (54%) in a second half which saw the Vandals pull steadily away.

Faurholt led all scorers with 24 points for the Vandals and also had 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. Thoelke racked up 21 points hitting 10 of 18 field goal attempts (including 3 for 5 on 3-pointers). She also had 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. Mitchell, hampered somewhat by foul problems, turned in a solid all-around game with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Summers finished with 2 points, 4 rebounds, and a steal in 14 minutes.

In other BWC action Saturday Santa Barbara (12-2) defeated Northridge 74-46 enabling the Vandals (11-4) to move back into third place ahead of Northridge (10-5) and a half game behind idle Long Beach (11-3). Utah State (9-6) beat Fullerton (3-11) 72-64, and Cal Poly (4-10) beat last-place Pacific (2-13) 71-52.

The Vandals will be on the road next week facing Irvine (3-11) and Thursday and Long Beach Saturday in a battle for second place. The last game of the regular season will see Utah State visiting on March 4.

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