Saturday in the Spectrum the Vandals trailed Louisiana Tech by eight with 3:59 remaining. The visiting Bulldogs maintained that lead and, in fact, had a seemingly safe 69-62 lead with 54 seconds left.
True freshman guard O.J. Avworo (6-0, 180) has started the last 11 games, has a team-best 48 assists, 33 turnovers in 18 games, and 14 steals.
The Vandals fouled again and the Bulldogs hit one of two to make the margin four points. Idaho charged down the floor and Darin Nagle hit a layup with 30 seconds left to make it a two point game. After another Vandal foul the Bulldogs made two free throws to again stretch the lead to four with 22 seconds remaining. Coming down to the other end of the floor Michael Crowell penetrated and passed out to Nagle who unleashed a three-point try from NBA range that drew nothing but net, and suddenly with 17 seconds left the Vandals trailed by one.
Louisiana Tech inbounded the ball and tried to outrace the Vandals to the other end of the floor. Nagle, who had drifted back down the floor after the score set up in a defensive position at the mid court line and was knocked down by Chad McKenzie who was called for the charge giving the Vandals the ball with 12 seconds remaining. After a time out the Vandals inbounded the ball. Watson dribbled around the perimeter then penetrated with the clock winding down lofting a short jumper that bounced twice on the rim and kicked out as time expired denying the Vandals their second miracle comeback in three days.
Afterwards, Vandal coach George Pfeifer, disappointed with the loss, was still able to point out positives in the game. "Wasn't that a great game?" he asked reporters. "Two one-point games in three days."
He thought back to the Vandals' home loss against New Mexico State two week ago and labeled that game as a bench mark in the process of rebuilding the Idaho basketball program. "In my opinion, I go back to the New Mexico State game. I really do. I think when we got done with the New Mexico State game, even though we didn't find success, and it is all about success – and [New Mexico State] just beat Nevada tonight – I think our guys got it. If we do some things, we can be successful. Thursday night we got the win. Tonight we didn't get the win.
"I told them after the game that we didn't do some things tonight to capture the victory and we let some things go by that created the loss. We had things going on both sides of the ledger. I can get into a laundry list of them. We didn't execute offensively, particularly. When we did, pretty cool stuff: Lob dunks, inside passes for buckets, that kind of stuff. But we had breakdowns. We missed a fumble on a handoff for example. Two guys were standing in the wrong spot," he said.
A crowd of 2,041 took in the game, one of the larger turnouts of the season, and Pfeifer wanted to make sure the fans knew how much their support meant to the Vandals. "I really am appreciative of our fan-base," he said. "Since I've been here, that was the best. We didn't win, and I apologize for that, but on the other hand I think our kids are playing hard. I think if you've been following us you see that we're getting better, and you see that we're fighting until the end. What were we down, seven with less than a minute to go? And we've got the ball with a chance to win the game. "
The biggest factor in the game was probably the Vandals' inability to contain the Bulldogs on the boards. The past three seasons Louisiana Tech had the country's leading rebounder in Paul Millsap. Millsap is now playing in the NBA, but La Tech's ability to clean up on the offensive glass is still a cornerstone of their program. The Bulldogs outrebounded the Vandals 40-21, had 15 offensive rebounds, and had 26 second-chance points to just two for Idaho.
"We said that we had to do two things," Pfeifer said. "We had to make sure that our offense didn't create their offense, which I think we did tonight. I don't think we gave them a ton of turnover-to-transition baskets. But the other thing that we said that we really had to do was keep them off the glass. That's a byproduct of them breaking us down with the dribble, because we'd start to rotate and then we would lose people in block out situations. I know three times for certain in the first half where we secured the ball, and they pulled the ball away from us. I know they did it in the second half twice; hence you get down to your last second shot. That's not to take anything away from them. That was a hard fought college basketball game."
Junior forward DARIN NAGLE (6-10, 220) has been a starter since joining the team mid-season.
Pfeifer was also asked to describe the final play and echoed Nagle's words. "We just went flat four. I don't think in those kinds of situations you want to run any kind of handoffs or picks. They were guarding our pick-on-ball pretty well, and the time before we went flat four and Keoni got in there and kicked it to Darin and Darin laid the ball up. I've seen Keoni make that shot since I've been here 100 times. He missed it [tonight], but I've seen him make that shot.
"At the end of the game when you get to that point in time you're shaking the dice. The other night we shook the dice and Clyde [Johnson] hit his shot. Tonight he drove in there and the ball didn't go in. I wish he had gone a little bit sooner, but … we aren't taking that back," he said.
Nagle's huge three pointer gave him 20 points on the game (Keoni Watson had 21) and put the Vandals in a position to win. Pfeifer had nothing but praise for the junior from Potlatch (Ida.) by way North Idaho College. Senior guard Keoni Watson also came in for praise. "I've seen (Nagle) make those…When Darin Nagle has his feet set, knees bent on catch, he's pretty dang accurate. Obviously not from half court, but I'm serious. When his feet are set…I thought a couple of times tonight his feet weren't set and he wasn't ready; hence the ball came to him. If he would have been pogo stick ready to jump up and shoot it, I would have liked it better. When I saw the ball going out of his hand I thought it was going in, but I've jinxed myself when I fish. I think the steelhead's come in before I had landed it and I never get it. Tonight when Keoni shot the ball, ‘That's in the hole.' So that's my fault."
In summary, Pfeifer said the Vandals have made a lot of progress over the year but still have a ways to go. "He [Nagle] made some great plays for us at the end. So did a lot of our kids. Those flat spots: They're not doing it on purpose. They're trying their butts off, and they know that. We really know that. All we can do is keep coming to practice and keep fighting as hard as we can and keep trying to get better. Games are important to us to get better, practices are important to us to get better. I like the way we approach stuff.
"We didn't show up flat tonight. We didn't come in here (thinking), ‘Hey, we've got one.' We didn't do that. There was lots of back and forth in this game when you have that kind of stuff going on. Both sides are competing. I think they [La Tech] came in with some swagger after they beat New Mexico State on Wednesday. All we can do is stay the course. Guys are making plays.
"I think one thing that we weren't doing early on [in the season] is we would come out of timeouts and we'd get nothing. Almost every time we came out of a timeout tonight we got something positive. Twice we got dunks…we got inside buckets. We got wide open threes, and that's a credit to those guys," the coach said. "Before one guy might screw up coming out of the timeout. Now – I don't want to use the words ‘buy in' but they really understand better what it takes to execute, and a little bit of a mess up and you're done."
The Vandals will take to the road next week for a Wednesday game (Jan. 24) at New Mexico State then return home for three straight contests: Jan. 27 against Boise State, Feb. 1 against San Jose State, and Feb. 3 against Fresno State.
After Saturday's action, the WAC standings were scrambled. Nevada and New Mexico State share the conference lead with identical 5-1 records. Utah State and Louisiana Tech are deadlocked for third at 4-2. Boise State follows at 3-3, Fresno State is 2-3, San Jose State 1-4, and Idaho and Hawaii are 1-5.