Vandals open WAC play with two losses

Led by senior guard TANORIS SHEPARD (scoring 36 total points the last two games), Idaho lost it's first two WAC games of the year, losing to New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech in The Dome. Next week Idaho (3-9, 0-2 WAC) hits the road to take on Nevada (11-3, 1-1 WAC) and Utah State (9-4, 1-2 WAC).

In a lackluster 62-52 loss Thursday night against New Mexico State (picked to finish eighth in the WAC this year) Idaho's three big men combined for 4 points, 3 rebounds, and committed seven fouls. As a team the Vandals shot 29% in the first half and 30% on the game.

Saturday afternoon, facing Louisiana Tech and post Paul Milsap, two-time NCAA rebounding champion and potential first-round NBA selection, the Vandals chose to challenge the strength of the Bulldogs and almost pulled off the upset before La Tech prevailed stretched a precarious three-point lead with 3:32 left in the game into a hard-fought 66-61 final tally.

The three Vandal post players – Mike Kale, Igor Vrzina, and Desmond Nwoke – combined for 24 points and 9 rebounds against Milsap and his teammates (picked to finish fourth in the WAC). As a team the Vandals shot 49% from the floor and 91% from the free-throw line while holding the Bulldogs to 39% field goal shooting.

After the La Tech game, Vandal coach Leonard Perry expressed disappointment with the final outcome but applauded his team's effort. "Had you told me prior to the game that we'd hold them to 39% for the game, I'd had told you we have a pretty good chance of winning," Perry said. "I was proud of our effort, and we put our kids in a real position to win this thing, and we didn't get it done. The loss is very disappointing, but the effort I'm extremely proud of. We got out-rebounded by 10, but I can name about 15 of those there was nothing we could do. I was proud of the way the kids competed. I'd like to see us when we get in positions to really snap a team to execute in those moments. I was as proud as you could be of a loss."

Sophomore post Mike Kale, who wound up with 10 points, said Milsap's offensive rebounding (11 of his 15 rebounds were on the offensive glass) was the difference in the game although the Vandals had hoped to challenge him from the outset. Kale and his teammates had been eager for the challenge. "We wanted to attack these guys," Kale said." Our plan actually was to try and tire Milsap out, but that guy's a beast. He didn't let up too much. We tried to attack him, and we were definitely trying to pound it into the post tonight. We went in wanting to step up to the challenge," he said. "All of our posts – we were all talking about it before, and we were pretty jacked up about it. We were excited for the challenge. We wanted to greet him. I wish we could do a better job, though," he said shaking his head." I wish we did a better job on him.

"His offensive rebounds were the biggest difference in the game," Kale continued, "because down the stretch he probably had three or four big ones and just put it back with ease. You know that kid's going to do something with as much talent as he has. He's just a phenomenal athlete."

Bulldog coach Keith Richard talked to the media after the game about Milsap, a 6-8 junior from Grambling, LA. "You guys are seeing it (Milsap's ability to rebound) for the first time. I've been watching him for 2-1/2 years, and it is something unique to watch. He's not a great half-court offensive player which people think he is because of his numbers, but he is a great offensive rebounder. Tremendous. Maybe the best in the country," said Richard. "I thought that obviously helped us win. It helped us stay in the game and then helped us win the game down the stretch…that and the blocked shots (four)."

Perry was asked about Milsap. "He's a pro. Any time you are playing defensively against a guy and you're doing everything textbook perfect and the kid still effortlessly makes the play, that's a pro, and that's what he is. He is a very good player."

Richard would not be disappointed if Milsap went to the NBA after this season. "If he's worthy of it, if they think he's a first rounder, then he ought to go. I don't have any problem with it at all," said Richard. "We went through the underclassman advisory committee. He wanted to check last year and see, and we did. We talked with the NBA, talked with Steve Jackson, went through the proper channels, and they advised him to come back, and he did. We'll go through the same process again. It's all about being a first rounder or not. That's what it's about. If you're good enough to be a first rounder, you ought to go. If not, you ought to come back. I would be okay with whatever is best for him."

The Vandals used a 2-3 zone against the Bulldogs with good results. Perry said the Vandals may go with it more often in the future. "It was effective against the team that's picked fourth in our league, and I think they're going to have a chance to finish maybe a little bit higher than fourth. That's as athletic a team as we have in our league…We don't have a physical presence at the 5 or 4 spot like Milsap; so to have the game right there and have a chance to win it…we're making progress."

Perry also commented briefly Thursday about the comparison between the Vandals and New Mexico State as far as athleticism was concerned. "We were extremely concerned about their (New Mexico State's) athleticism, and I think their athleticism is good, but believe me when I tell you it's something we're addressing in recruiting as we speak," Perry promised.

The Vandals will make their first WAC road trip of the season this week, and it promises to be probably their most difficult test as they face pre-season favorite Nevada Thursday evening and highly-regarded Utah State Saturday evening.

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