Vandals beat Hawaii in thriller

Junior forward CLYDE JOHNSON graced the cover of Thursday night's game program, and topped it off by hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second left to give Idaho their first Western Athletic Conference win of the season, an action-packed 76-75 victory over Hawaii at the Cowan Spectrum.

As 1,107 fans braved the snow, ice and fog which has engulfed the Moscow area, they filed into the Cowan Spectrum Thursday night for a Western Athletic Conference basketball game between the Idaho Vandals and Hawaii Warriors. Everyone received a free game program with player rosters and other team info.

On the cover was an action shot of Vandal forward Clyde Johnson.

There are some who believe having your photo on the cover (of a certain national sports magazine) is a jinx. Johnson was not among those people today. The junior from Aurora, Colorado, came off the bench to score a career high (at Idaho) 15 points, none bigger than a clutch three-pointer that slipped through the net with 0.9 seconds left on the clock to lift the Vandals to a pulsating 76-75 win over Hawaii. Johnson was 6/7 (86%) from the floor including 3/3 from 3 point range with 5 rebounds and an assist. Senior Keoni Watson led with 16, Johnson and junior forward Darin Nagle each had 15, and senior center/forward Desmond Nwoke had a career high 14 points.

Truth be told, Johnson had another, perhaps bigger basket earlier in the second half. After scoring the first seven points of the game, the Vandals found themselves trailing the towering Warriors throughout most of the game. Hawai'i's PJ Owsley sank a layup to make it 59-50 Warriors with 8:20 left in the game. Then, 22 seconds later there was a media timeout with the Vandals in possession of the ball under their own basket. When play resumed, freshman OJ Avworo was the trigger man on the inbound play.

As the Vandals ran a series of picks and screens on the floor, Avworo held the ball and faked a few passes waiting for the optimum time for a pass. It came a moment later as Johnson broke toward the basket. Avworo lofted a perfect pass into the vicinity of the basket and Johnson, in one smooth movement, took the pass and slammed the ball through the hoop. The bucket reduced Hawai'i's lead to seven points, but more importantly the slam energized the crowd and triggered a change in momentum towards the Vandals.

Senior Desmond Nwoke, whose Vandal career has been plagued by injuries, came off the bench with arguably the best game of his career to help neutralize Hawai'I's Ahmet Gueye. Gueye wound up with 14 points, including 11 from the free-throw line. But Nwoke responded with a career high 14 points (including 6 of 7 from the free-throw line) and eight rebounds to keep the Vandals in contention.

As the game wound down the Vandals kept slicing into the Warrior lead. The game was tied twice, the last time at 68 with 1:46 remaining. The Warriors built a 72-68 lead with 22.1 seconds left when, on a close call in the key, Gueye drew a foul from Nwoke with the latter fouling out.

Idaho senior Keoni Watson sank two free throws with 18.2 seconds remaining to slice the lead in half (72-70). Less than a second later Matt Lojeski of Hawai'i was fouled by Trevor Morris. Lojeski missed the first free throw and made the second making it 73-70 Hawaii. The Vandals inbounded the ball and raced down the floor with Watson canning a clutch 3 from the top of the circle to tie the game with 12 seconds left.

Then, with 8.7 seconds remaining, Vandal true freshman David Jackson crossed the court in an attempt to pressure Warrior Dominic Waters near the mid court line. Jackson bumped into Waters and was called for the foul. Waters made both free throws giving the visitors a 75-73 lead.

The Warriors then took a timeout to set up their end-game strategy. When play resumed, the Vandals inbounded the ball to Avworo. The gutsy freshman from Houston, Texas, dribbled the length of the floor against Hawai'I's full-court press and penetrated the Warrior defense. Meanwhile, Johnson broke free on the right wing as Gueye tripped and fell. Avworo, on a play designed to get the ball to senior guard Keoni Watson, saw Johnson and hit him with the pass. Johnson looked down, slipped behind the three-point line, squared up, and drained the three-pointer to give Idaho a 76-75 lead as the crowd erupted and charged the floor.

Despite the long-overdue celebration, the officials huddled and ruled there was 0.9 seconds left in the game. Hawai'I set up a play and inbounded the ball to Gueye, but his shot was off the mark and the game ended with Vandal fans again storming the court as the fight song played, celebrating with the players as confetti and streamers rained down.

After the game reporters asked Johnson how big the victory was to him. "It was big…Man. I thought we should have won the New Mexico State game. We were up by 12 and let that down. We only had one day of practice. All we really did was just focus on defense; defense. The first half we shot 38%. It feels good, because they were looking at us as the worst team, but now we're right up in the middle because everybody was losing games and winning games. We've got to come back Saturday and try to win this one right in the middle of the conference."

Asked if he had ever hit a game winner at the buzzer before, Johnson said, ""Not since high school, and I've been out of high school for four years. It was a good feeling. Coach drew it up and told me to take the ball out every time. Take it out, give it to Keoni [Watson]. He told Keoni to run through the middle, told me to go to the right wing, with Trevor [Morris] to go to the left wing. They collapsed and I was wide open. OJ [Avworo] found me. I just shot. I made my first two [earlier in the game]; so I just shot it and it went in. All net. It felt good."

Did he take his time to measure the pressure-packed shot? "I did," Johnson admitted. "I wanted to make sure I was behind the 3-point line, because I knew I was close. That was why I looked down, then when I saw both feet behind the line I just went up with it, and nothing but net. They had me shooting a lot of shots in practice; so it was bound to go in."

A reporter asked Johnson about the fact that he had lost his starting position earlier in the season and was now coming off the bench. Exhibiting the true team spirit that has become a trademark of Vandal basketball this year, Johnson explained, ""It's all right with me, because in junior college I was coming off the bench before I transferred here. I like to bring energy off the bench anyway. If I'm not starting I just bring the most energy off the bench, because after that first sub it seems to go down a little bit. I come in, you see I'm full of energy the whole game. I lost my voice. I was yelling after every bucket, all the fouls and ones Des [Nwoke] was getting I'm yelling at the top of the key. I'm not even in the play. I'm just yelling, trying to bring energy into the game. I'm not worried about losing a starting spot as long as we're winning games. That's all that matters to me."

Hawai'i coach Riley Wallace analyzed the fateful play. "The idea was keep them in front of you, switch any picks, don't give up a three. He gets penetration, and for some reason Gueye was helping him - which we don't want - and falls down and leaves his man open who's a good shooter. He's three-for-three on the night from three. They got a break there, but he didn't play the defense right either…he got tangled up with somebody, he fell down out there, but that's not what you wanted out of it. He penetrated off of Luettgerodt and he ends up helping the other guy, comes in and falls, and he gets a wide-open three with no one to contest.

"You've got to give them credit," he continued. "They tore our defense up and executed when they had to down the stretch. We had pretty good control in there, five to nine points most of the game, and they had to get out of the zone because we were shooting the ball pretty good on the zone. When they got into man they really got into us, good man-to-man defense, and we couldn't stop their penetration to create stuff. Then they hit a big three. That's what you've got to do to win games.

"At the end we weren't about to go zone because when we went zone in the first half they shot us out. We played a little zone and they hit all those threes; so we weren't going to the zone"

Asked about his first WAC win, Vandal coach George Pfeifer said, ""It was good. It feels really good. It feels good for our players. You don't know how hard it is to do everything that they have done since August until now and then not receive reward as far as what they got tonight. The fans were here and they were cheering them and slapping them on the back. An exciting basketball game. They have stayed the course. We talked about Wednesday, that if you stay the course and keep fighting good things can happen, and tonight good things happened for us."

Asked about the play of Nwoke, Pfeifer said ""As far as I'm concerned that was his best game in a Vandal uniform, and that's what we told him afterwards. He was aggressive, he went at him [Ahmet Gueye]. We did a good job as a basketball team getting him the ball, and I think it surprised them that he was as aggressive as he was. I was really impressed because he's below 50% from the free throw line and he was 6 for 7 tonight. We were 11 for 14 in the second half, and he was a large part of that. He gave us some stability as far as rebounding was concerned. It wasn't great, because they're very good…Gueye averages four offensive rebounds a game in WAC. Of course he gets seven against us, but I do think that Desmond slowed that pace down. It was hard for us in the zone to identify him all the time, but I thought Desmond played really, really well.

"We've got two guys that came off the bench and played great for us tonight…not just because Clyde hit that shot, but Desmond and Clyde, and then Trevor, I thought gave us solid minutes, too," the coach added.

Pfeifer was asked to reflect back on the inbound play that ignited the crowd. ""We ran three lob dunk plays at Utah State, all of them wide open. We missed the lob pass on all three of them. Tonight we converted the lob pass. We thought at the timeout it was an important time. We've run that play and scored with it before, but we thought it was an important time to run something like that, from a coach's standpoint, from our staff's standpoint, to try and give us some enthusiasm. It got the fans into the game. I thought it brought people back into the game."

The coach was also asked if the final play resulting in Johnson's three-pointer ran the way he had designed it. ""Absolutely not. I'd like to take credit for that…we were going to run a double out to Keoni coming out the other side. We have, when we run short games, but not enough to take credit for that. We have had the inbounder make sure he trails, because a lot of times in that end-game situation when you're going downstream, and we'd gone downstream the last couple of times with Keoni when we flattened it out.

"It got them to suck in, suck in, suck in, and OJ wasn't a freshman in that moment," the coach said. "He saw the open guy and Clyde stepped up. That's not a surprise that Clyde made that, because he's been shooting a good percentage from there. For us to say we thought our trail guy was going to be wide open from the wing, I have to go back and watch the video tape. I heard somebody from Hawaii fell down. That's what I heard, but we'll take that."

Pfeifer said he would give the Vandals a bit of time to savor the victory, which ended a 12-game WAC losing streak. Saturday the Vandals will go after their second WAC win in the Cowan Spectrum against Louisiana Tech at 7:05 p.m.

Heading into action Saturday, Nevada is out in front with a 5-0 record followed by New Mexico State at 4-1, Louisiana Tech and Utah State at 3-2, Fresno State and Boise State at 2-3, San Jose State at 1-3, and Idaho and Hawai'I at 1-4.

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