Last Monday, the Fresno State Bulldogs led by as many as 40 points before emptying their bench for a lopsided 89-54 win over the Vandals in Fresno.
Last night, before a TV audience and a shade over 1,000 fans in the Cowan Spectrum, the Vandals led most of the game, watched senior Tanoris Shepard score his 1,000th career point on his way to a career high 29-point scoring effort, and for good measure saw Idaho shoot 52% from the floor in the second half and outrebound Fresno State by a lopsided 40-29 count to post a 72-61 victory. The win snaps a 10-game losing streak and gives Idaho it's first WAC basketball win of the season.
Shepard was relatively quiet in the first half scoring six points, but with the score tied 36-36 1:10 after the intermission Keoni Watson pulled in a defensive rebound and dished off to Shepard who canned a three-pointer. He followed with three consecutive three-pointers to spark the Vandals who outscored Fresno 36-25 the rest of the way to notch the win.
The soft-spoken Shepard admitted he found a rhythm early in the second half. When asked it he was "feeling it" against the Bulldogs, Shepard said, "Yeah. I got caught in a little rhythm, and I just decided to ride along with it. When I get some good shots, coach has been telling me all year long ‘take good shots and step up and make them.' That's what real players do. I felt it a little bit tonight, and I thought I had some good looks and just snapped ‘em off."
Junior guard Keoni Watson
Coach Leonard Perry was definitely pleased to notch his first win in the WAC, especially after the rocky road his Vandals have traveled this season. "It feels great, and I'll tell you why," he said. "I told these kids, of all the things that have been written and said there's not a team in America that could have gone through what we went through in the preseason and the first half of league and come out and played a team that had us down 40 [last week] and responded -- fight, scratch, claw, compete, and get the job done against what we think is a good quality, upper echelon team in this league. That's why it's the biggest win I've been a part of.
"I've been three minutes away from the Final Four up seven, and I thought that was the biggest game I'd ever be a part of, but this is special because these kids keep showing up to practice, they keep working their butts off. They bought into the things that we're teaching, and I thought our execution was very good tonight. Defensively this is about as well as we've defended since Gonzaga. I thought the kids really got after it defensively. We played a ton of man-to-man tonight although we were a bit outmatched athletically, but I thought the kids followed the scouting report to a T."
Perry said the Vandal defense – predominantly man-to-man – turned things around against the Bulldogs who were 14 for 28 on three-pointers and 53% from the floor overall at Fresno against Idaho's zone defense last week. "Defensively, no question," he responded when asked what made the difference last night. "That's where it is, and we outrebounded them. There you have it. Shooting 52% in the second half definitely doesn't hurt. That's something we struggle with. Tonight every time we had to have a basket we got the basket or we got fouled. The kids were very determined tonight, and I'm really, really proud of them. We'll continue to get better. I believe in these kids and we'll continue to get better."
Shepard's run of three-pointers stretched out the Bulldog defense allowing the Vandals to work the ball inside, and later in the second half the Vandals were able to run time off the clock hitting several shots with less than 5 seconds remaining on the 35-second shot clock. "When you get going from the outside it definitely opens up the floor a lot more, and you're able to penetrate and find guys, or penetrate and finish," Tanoris said. "They definitely knew in the second half I had it going a little bit so they had to respect the three ball, and that enabled me to do some other things."
Asked about how much of a factor it was for the Vandals to be able to run time off the clock, Shepard said, "It's huge. I think it just takes the air out of a team for them to guard us for 25 to 26 seconds and then we still get a basket. It takes a lot of air out of them, especially from a team that is that athletic. We just wanted to grind ‘em down and kinda run through our offense and try to make them guard, and then at the end of the shot clock take the best shot available."
Shepard and Perry both said the Vandals' have maintained a positive attitude despite the adversity of the losing streak. "The mentality has never changed," Perry said. "Things just haven't gone our way. This team's mentality has never changed. We're nowhere close to especially psyched up or anything like that. The kids' mental attitude has not changed, not one bit. They've never stopped believing. We've been down 30 on the road, and these kids in the huddle say, ‘We have to execute better. We've got to stay with what we're doing, stop making the same mistakes.' The mentality hasn't changed, and that's what people don't see.
"Being in the locker room with these kids after a game, that's why you're in this business. If I have to go through what I've gone through this year to get these kids to this point…that's what it's about. That's why when I stopped playing here and started coaching ... that's why I got into it, to build character of men. We certainly have that on this team with this particular group of kids. We've got a ton of character. I'm so proud of ‘em I don't know what to do."
Shepard was asked if the Vandals ever lost faith in themselves. "Not one bit. Like coach said we've been going through some ups and down, and it's been rough, but throughout the whole process we stayed with it and stayed positive," he commented. "Most importantly coach has kept us focused. He's kept us on an even keel. He's kept us with the right game plan in hand. It's been a lack of us executing at times. Throughout that we've been positive, and we know we're working with a young ball club, but we are continuously positive and just try to have a positive atmosphere in the locker room, just be on each other but in a positive manner. Just keep on fighting. That's what I tell ‘em. We've got to keep fighting and keep grinding it out, and eventually something will break for us."
Kale was particularly effective off the bench for the Vandals and Perry was asked if he had done anything differently against the Bulldogs last night. "He didn't do anything he hasn't done in the last three games, maybe four," the coach said. "He has continually gotten better, but in the midst of the storm it's been hard to see…We definitely want to get him and Desmond [Nwoke] the ball inside. David [Dubois] has been playing really smart. Defensively I thought David was outstanding tonight. I thought he did a great job."
The Vandals were without the services of junior forward Igor Vrzina who was injured in practice over the weekend and did not suit up. Perry was not certain when the 6-8 Vrzina would be able to return to action.
The game would have been even more lopsided had the Vandals been able to cash in on more of their free throw opportunities. Idaho was 13-for-25 on the game and only 5-of-10 in the second half. They made up for it in the rebounding battle pulling in 11 offensive board and 29 defensive compared to 6 and 23 for the Bulldogs.
In a bizarre twist to the game, late in the second half the Vandals had two points taken off the scoreboard. With 4:22 remaining and Idaho holding a 64-57 lead, Fresno's Quinton Hosley was called for a foul against Shepard, Hosely's fourth personal foul of the game. Seconds later he was whistled for a technical foul and fouled out of the game. Shepard made three of four free throws, but the sequencing was such that the Vandals were mistakenly allowed to shoot a 1-and-1 after the technical. Fresno headed to the other end of the floor where high-scoring Ja'Vance Coleman was called for a charging foul, but the officials conferenced and realized their error. Two points were taken off the scoreboard for the Vandals and Coleman's foul was rescinded. Idaho got the ball out under its own basket. A few moments later the Bulldogs missed two consecutive free throws to negate the removal of points from the Vandals.
Idaho will be on the road Thursday to face San Jose State in a 7:05 p.m. contest. Next home action for the Vandals will be Wednesday, Feb. 15 against Utah State.