Thoelke ignites Lady Vandals to 75-65 win over USU

It figured to be an emotional game as senior <b>Heather Thoelke</b>, Idaho's only senior, made her final home appearance. It was. And Thoelke responded with the game on the line in the second half leading the Vandals to a key 11-0 scoring run on their way to a decisive 75-65 victory over the Utah State Aggies in a rare Friday night game in the Cowan Spectrum.

The victory should secure a third place seed for the Vandals who will draw a first-round bye in the Big West Conference tournament in Anaheim next week.

The largest crowd for a women's game in the Spectrum this season (1,744 which was also the largest crowd to see the Lady Vandals in Big West Conference action) was on hand to salute Thoelke who came in needing only 9 points to reach the 1,000-point mark for her four-year division I career, and perhaps that was a factor as the Vandals seemed to be struggling offensively early in the game. The Aggies scored the first 5 points of the contest momentum surged back and forth before the Vandals settled for a 28-24 lead at the half. They had been up by eight with about 9 minutes remaining in the half when Emily Faurholt picked up her third foul and sat out the remainder of the half. Thoelke was scoreless in the first half.

The game remained tight throughout the early stages of the second half as the Vandals continued to look for offensive consistency. Then, with Idaho clinging to a five-point lead, the Aggies switched into a zone defense in the middle of a Vandal offensive possession. Leilani Mitchell penetrated with a drive down the lane and dished off to Thoelke who was all alone deep in the corner. Thoelke stepped up and canned the three-pointer as the crowd erupted. Utah State drove down the floor and missed. Jessica Summers grabbed the rebound and Mitchell took of on the fast break passing off to Faurholt who scored the layup sending the crowd into a frenzy. Utah State took a quick 30-second time out to try to disrupt the momentum, but seconds later Faurholt grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to increase the Vandal lead. Before the Aggies could recover the Vandals had reeled off 11 unanswered points and built a 16-point bulge at 48-32.

The tempo slowed a bit and the crowd relaxed, but they erupted once again with 4:13 remaining when Mitchell hit Thoelke with a pinpoint pass at the elbow near the same spot on the floor where she had started the 4-point play with 3 seconds remaining to defeat Montana 59-58 last December. The senior wing stepped up and drilled the 3 to give her 10 on the game at 1,001 for her career.

The Vandal lead remained in double-digits most of the rest of the game and never got below eight even though Utah State tried to make a late run when coach Mike Divilbiss cleared the bench in the closing minutes of the game.

At the post-game media conference, Faurholt was asked to comment on Thoelke's key three-pointer. "I think Heather hitting that three was a huge spark," she said. "It doesn't matter what happens with Heather. She'll make big plays whenever you need them. We were kinda struggling to score right then. We ran a play, they went to the zone. We ran a play, she caught it. She was confident. She hit it, and it was like, ‘Sorry. You can't run zone. You can't do that, because we've got girls that are going to knock it down. ‘ Yeah, she was huge with that. Then everybody started scoring. Ticey (Westbrooks) got a break, Leilani got a couple of passes to me and I got open. I think that was big, and Heather just went from there. I thought that was awesome."

Coach Mike Divilbiss said defense carried the Vandals in the early going. "I thought it was an outstanding second half, he said. "I thought we played very hard in the first half defensively. We looked little tentative offensively. I think everybody was a little tight, a little wound maybe and wanted it to be a special night for Heather, and I think it took us a little while to get going and get our blood going a little bit. Once we did in the second half we put 47 points up, but I thought we played hard defensively. Emily got into foul trouble and I thought we got a little tentative offensively…It was 19-11 when Emily went out and we kinda stalled a little bit, but I thought we were aggressive defensively. We didn't have a lot to show for it other than a low-scoring half, but I was very pleased with our defense all night and our effort, and we got into a little bit more of a flow in the second half offensively.

Thoelke said she had fun in her final home appearance in the Vandal uniform and tried hard not to disappoint the crowd. "It was a fun game to be a part of. The crowd sure let me know that I was close to 1,000 points. I was trying not to think about, but every time I missed they said, like "Ohhh" mimicking the crowd's audible disappointment when a Thoelke shot was off the mark. "I hated that, but then when I made it they were good. The support that people have shown has just been great. There's no place like playing here."

Defensively, Thoelke picked up 4 steals in the first half to tie her season and career highs for a game and caused a number of deflections. "I just felt like I was at the right place at the right time a lot I think," she explained. "I thought the team played well defensively. We did get a lot of deflections."

On her night, Thoelke wound up with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 assists. Faurholt led all scorers with 29 points and 4 rebounds without fouling out. Mitchell had an outstanding game with 23 points, 8 assists, 5 steals, and 3 rebounds. Summers led the team with 11 rebounds and added 6 points, 2 assists, 3 steals and one blocked shot. Lauren Frazee had 7 rebounds and 3 points, and Westbrooks had 2 points and a steal. Karly Felton had a solid game defensively and notched a steal and an assist. Stephanie Sax also saw action for the Vandals.

Missing the game was AnnMarie Summerhays. Divilbiss reported that the sophomore guard suffered a season-ending injury in practice earlier in the week. "That really hurts us," he said. "We're devastated for her. She gives so much to us and plays such an unhearalded support role on our team, yet it's a very, very important role on the team. You're only as good as your support people, and losing AnnMarie is going to hurt us," Divilbiss said. Faurholt echoed the coach's sentiments: "She's very important to us."

Divilbiss was asked his thoughts on the upcoming tournament: "If we don't come ready to play, even one time. we'll be done. No matter who you play, it isn't going to matter. If we don't come ready to play, it'll be over. "

Coach glances back at the regular season

Divilbiss was asked his perspective on the just-completed season. "I think if you sit back and look at things, we're 12-6 in the league. Last year we were 13-5, and the league's a lot stronger than it was last year by far. We have four fewer wins than we had overall last year. In the regular season we were 21-6 (last year compared to 17-10 this year), but we had some really good fights this year and we had a way tougher schedule, I thought.

"We lost three of our top seven kids from last year," he continued, "and to be where we are at 17-10 and 12-6 is outstanding to be honest with you with the schedule that we played and the challenges that we've been though. We've been counting on a lot of young kids and they've been stepping up and doing it and improving. I think it does add some perspective to things to be one game below where we were last year in league, and we thought last year we had such a tremendous year. I think if you ask both these girls (Faurholt and Thoelke) they'd tell you we had an outstanding year last year. To look at that and say, ‘Wow. It's only one game difference' I think might even surprise them a little bit, because it has felt so much harder this year.

"I don't know whether it's on us, the pressures of expectation, or whether we just are getting so much from our opponents every night we play. Not that we didn't last year, but it's just a whole different mind set (this season). I mean, every game we played this year in and out of league other than maybe Georgia we were a huge feather in our opponent's cap if they were able to win. Our margin for error is very, very small this year, and I think that's made it feel very, very hard as well."

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