Week in Review: Back-to-back wins

It's been a struggle, but after 11 months the Idaho Vandals used a balanced offensive effort and a 34-31 rebounding edge fueled by Keoni Watson's 23-point career-best effort to defeat the North Dakota State Bison 76-71 in the Cowan Spectrum Wednesday night, giving Idaho back-to-back wins for the first time since they beat UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton last January.

The 1,012 fans in attendance saw 5-11 junior guard Keoni Watson put up 23 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and and 3 steals as Idaho beat North Dakota State to close out a 3-week home stand. Coach Leonard Perry was asked how it felt to win his second straight game. "Well, I'm still thinking," Perry said. "Two in a row for this particular team…I'm really proud of how they stayed together and have continuously gotten better in practice. They put themselves in a position to win tonight. For the most part we executed the things we felt like we had to execute to win the game. I thought we fouled entirely too much, but we're small and undersized, and that's going to happen when guys are playing long minutes. It's just going to happen."

Perry said he was surprised to learn about Watson's breakout offensive performance. "You know, I didn't think he had 20-something points. It really didn't look like it. I just thought defensively he and Tanoris (Shepard) were doing a great job with (Ben) Woodside in terms of making him earn everything he had. I mean he really had to work for his shots, and we felt like he's a big key to their team through penetration and getting fouled. He's averaging almost 10 free throws a night; so I thought our kids – Keoni and Tanoris in particular -- did a really good job, as good a job as you can do on him to put us in a position to win.

"I also thought all the kids played well. I thought they battled really hard. David (Dubois) had 17 (points) and 8 (rebounds) – he's a true freshman. He's just a kid out there. I thought that Keoni played tremendously defensively…I'm proud of them. I am. I've never given up on them. This is what we have, and if we continually get better we can put ourselves in a position to where we'll be in some dogfights. That's what we're going to have to do."

The coach said the explosive quickness of the Vandal guards gave them an edge. "I thought (the Bison) had some pretty good athletes, especially from watching about 9 hours of tape on them. I thought their athletes were really good," Perry said. "I think Brett Winkelman is a good athlete, and I think Woodside is underrated athletically…I thought we were able to use our quickness on the offensive end…and get some easy baskets…That's like hitting lottery for us in terms of scoring. Any time we can put ourselves in a position where we can get easy baskets, that's a heck of a bonus for us."

Idaho's big men – Desmond Nwoke, Igor Vrzina, and David Kale, also were a factor in the win combining for 11 points and 12 rebounds (led by Nwoke with 6 points and 7 rebounds). "I'm really proud of them. We out-rebounded a team, and I tell our kids continuously, ‘You out-rebound opponents we can win those games.' If you don't, we're going to really struggle to win games…and we out-rebounded this team tonight. This is a team that had 18 offensive rebounds against Idaho State. They do a good job on the glass," Perry said. "They're well coached. I thought Desmond was really, really big for us tonight. He got in foul trouble. I would like to have played him longer.

"David Dubois…what are you going to say? I thought Igor gave us a lift off the bench. He struggled at the free throw line, but I thought he played well. I thought he hustled. I thought he tried hard, and I was proud of his effort. I thought Bret Ledbetter had another solid night for us, 14 points and 5 rebounds. That's huge for us. I thought we did a really good job tonight against a team that I was not feeling great about going into this game in terms of knowing that they're good enough to come in and get you if you're not ready to play."

Watson said he is starting to feel comfortable making the adjustment from Seward County (Kansas) Community College to an NCAA Division I environment. Asked about the difference in his play now compared to the beginning of the season, Watson said "The difference is I'm thinking more. Instead of just going to get a play, I let the play come to me. I'm slowly learning the division I skills. The type of game is different from juco, It's just a whole lot more just thinking. I'm basically letting it come to me now.

"I know I can come in and get steals. I'm going to get it somehow, some way. I'm just that type of person…Now my shots are falling. I feel a little more comfortable out there. You know, when shots fall you feel a whole lot more comfortable than when you're not making them and turning the ball over, but now I feel more comfortable with my team."

For the first time in his career, Perry is giving the coaches and players some time off for the holidays. "This is the first time in my adult life…it really is, seriously. I've never had three or four days where I could say ‘Merry Christmas' to my kids and be there. I've usually been at the office on those mornings watching tape and getting ready for a game on the 26th, or we may have just played on the 23rd…It's going to be neat to sit there and listen to my wife tell me what we got the kids," he said with a smile.

The Vandals will return to practice December 27 to prepare for a return engagement against the Portland State Vikings at the Stott Center in Portland December 30, their final non-conference tuneup for the WAC opener against New Mexico State January 5 in the Moscow.

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