Vandals lose to Irvine at home in OT, 66-63

Tanoris Shepard exploded for a career-high 28 points including 24 in the last 14 minutes of regulation time helping the Vandals overcome a 13-point deficit sending the game into overtime, but it wasn't enough as the UC Irvine Anteaters clawed their way to a 66-63 win at Memorial Gym Thursday night.

The play of senior Tanoris Shepard (who is expected to be granted another season to play for Idaho next year) was impressive tonight, despite getting off to a rocky first half start. "In the first half I picked up a couple of early fouls, a couple of quick ones early in the game," he said. "When you do that it takes you off your rhythm. Coach set me down because he didn't want me to pick up that third one right away in the first half. I just got into a little flow (in the second half). My teammates most importantly did a good job finding me, getting me open and helping me out a lot…They put the ball in my hands…and I just did what I did, made the best of it. I got my opportunities. Coach told me if you get, just keep being aggressive -- look for it, and that's what I did. A couple of shots were falling."

After a first-half Vandal comeback whittled a 9-point Irvine lead to 22-18 at intermission, the Anteaters again started hot outscoring the Vandals 11-2 in the first 3:32 of the second half and continued to maintain that lead until Shepard caught fire. Shepard hit a 3-pointer with 14:15 left in the game to cut Irvine's lead to 8. He then scored 9 straight points in the next 2:25 to tie the game at 36, the first time Idaho was even. Irvine answered with a 3 by Nic Campbell, but Dandrick Jones hit a jumper, drew a foul, and converted the 3-point opportunity to once again tie the score. Later Shepard drilled another 3 with 3:43 left in regulation giving the Vandals their first lead and increased it to 3 with a jumper with 2:14 remaining. Irvine came back to regain the lead with a transition layup by Campbell with 50 seconds remaining, but Shepard once again knotted the score with 24 seconds left on 2 free throws. Overtime was tight all the way with 5 lead changes in the first 3+ minutes, but in the end Irvine scored 4 of the last 6 points to secure the victory.

"I was disappointed, disappointed in the way we started the first half, the way we started the second half," coach Leonard Perry said after the game. "We allowed this team, as we have the last 3 or 4, to start games on a tremendous roll offensively and put us on our heels for whatever reason. I don't know what it is. When you do that, when you give teams confidence…they're going to score well the remainder of the night. Once we settled down I thought we defended well. I think we held them without a basket from about the 12-minute mark to about 5-something (in the first half). We got back into the game (down 4 at half)."

Perry said the Vandals played hard, but a lack of depth may be taking its toll on them. "The course of the season may have taken its toll on some of our guys," he said. "Their intentions were right. They just struggled to get there on some things. We got hurt In transition throughout the night. That's something we work on all the time. We didn't do a very good job of it, and it cost us."

Idaho juggled its opening lineup with Dillon Higdon and Mike Kale getting starts. Asked why the change, Perry said, ""We've lost 18 games. Why not? What's it going to hurt? It's not going to hurt anything. Not at this point…We've got some big guys logging unbelievable minutes. Anton Lyons plays 37 minutes, Lionel Davis plays 35. That's a lot of minutes for bigs. It really is, especially the way we try to play. It puts a lot of wear and tear on them...We're thin and don't have a lot of depth. We've asked kids to play really, really hard, and I think they've really tried. We haven't been as mentally tough as I'd like to see us this year, but I think effort-wise the kids have tried.

"When I say mentally tough, I don't necessarily mean we're soft. I just mean that right during times where to have to get stops it comes down to executing defensively, and we seem to break down, and those are things that characteristically with the program we normally do. We haven't been able to do that this year…Defensively we're just not playing the way our teams typically play. We held them to 36% in the first half; in the second half we held to 40%. That's pretty darn good. You tell me we're going to that prior to the game I'd tell we've got a heck of a chance to win. I just think that we can play better defensively. I know we can."

The gut-wrenching loss was the fifth straight for the Vandals who are now 3-10 this season in games decided by 5 points or less. They host Long Beach State Saturday at 5 p.m. on Senior night. Shepard, who is a senior but will be granted another year of eligibility if he graduates this May, voiced his concern about breaking the losing streak and trying to gain some sort of momentum heading into the Big West tournament.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "We were just in the locker room discussing it. I'm very, very concerned about making the conference tournament. We're still decent shape. I'm not even going to say ‘okay shape,' just decent shape. Just probably good enough shape to get into the tournament. That's all I can hope for at this point. We're playing bad. We're in a slump. Tomorrow in practice…get after it and find a way to get our bodies to respond.

"After the game coach just told us pretty much the same things he tells us after every game. He's coaching his butt off, Shepard added. "We're just not getting out there and executing. He'd really highly disappointed, of course. We're on a 5-game losing streak; so who wouldn't be? At the same time he's not really showing it. He's showing a more positive side trying to keep us positive, keep our heads up and keep us in the groove of this thing, because like I said we've still got chance after chance to make this conference tournament, and that's what it's really about.

Besides Shepard's 28, Jones was the only other Vandal to reach double figures with 11. Lyons and Anton Davis had 7 each, Jason Bowden-Key 6, Matt Anderson 2 and Jerod Haynes 1. "Guys just missed good shots. I have no problems with the shots, they just didn't go in," Perry said. "Anton Lyons had good looks. What are you going to do? Dandrick Jones got good looks. They don't go in. That's why we put so much emphasis on defending a rebound; so when those shots don't go in if you can really get after your opponents you'll still be in those games."

Looking ahead to the Long Beach game, Perry said, "There are certain things we have to do. Get back in transition, defend our basket, rebound the basketball. If we don't do those things the outcome is usually not favorable to us. That's where the game will be won or lost if we start the game right."

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