2008-09 Idaho Women's Season Review

Although the men's team captures most of the headlines, what this year's Vandal women's basketball team accomplished under first year head coach Jon Newlee is nothing short of phenominal. In his first season at Idaho coach Newlee was named WAC Coach of the Year and guided the team to a third place tie. YINKA OLERUNNIFE set a new Idaho rebounding record, and three Vandals earned All-WAC honors.

A hackneyed saying: "You play with the cards you were dealt."

Jon Newlee was named head women's basketball coach at Idaho April 15, 2008. He came in from Idaho State with a tremendous record, including three trips to the WNIT in six seasons and a berth in the NCAA tournament to boot. When he arrived on campus, he found a team that had gone 11-37 in conference play and 20-66 overall in the previous three seasons. The leading scorer had left at the conclusion of the previous season, and there were a handful of players returning.

In essence Newlee and assistants Gavin Peterson, Christa Sanford and Karen Ada Piers set sail at the University of Idaho with four returning players: a 5-3 junior in Char Otero and three sophomores: 6-0 Yinka Olorunnife, 5-11 Rachele Kloke and 5-6 Alana Curtis. Newlee was able to bring in a JC transfer, 5-9 Derisa Taleni; and a freshman Shaena-Lyn Kuehu, a 5-9 guard, but the simple fact of the matter was that the Vandals were sorely lacking in depth.

Case in point, they brought in two goalies from the Vandal soccer team to be able to field enough players to scrimmage at practice.

Coach Jon Newlee
And yet Newlee, his staff, and his players made it work. Not without the ups and downs, bumps and bruises, heartaches and tears of building a program basically from scratch, of course. But when it was all said and done, the Vandals had three team members named to the All-WAC team, Newlee was named WAC Coach of the Year, they scored some amazing wins over some of the best teams in the WAC, and they found themselves in fourth place in the WAC going into the conference tournament.

Newlee and his staff pulled off the amazing turnaround (the 2007-08 Vandals finished 2-25 on the year and 3-13 in conference play) with an even temperament and a lot of homework, watching videos and preparing scouting reports and effective game plans on Vandal opponents.

But the growing was not without pain. The Vandals seemed to be heading in the right direction until they reverted to old habits in Memorial Gym on November 18 in a lopsided loss against Montana. Newlee was far from pleased with the effort in that game, but the Vandals rebounded with a narrow defeat against Colorado State in their next game and handed Eastern Washington a 10-point loss in their next game at home.

Newlee makes no bones about the fact he prefers to coach his teams to play up-tempo basketball for a full 40 minutes, but a lack of depth and recruiting time made those plans unobtainable. One player fell by the wayside a few days before the opening of the season with an injury, and the Vandals were looking at having six players to call on for a 28-game season. In fact, in the final accounting one player (Otero) averaged 40.6 minutes played per game (there had to be an OT or three thrown in there).

The Vandals were undersized with Yinka Olorunnife the tallest player at a listed 6-0. But through excellent coaching and amazing instincts for a loose basketball, Olorunnife rewrote the Vandal record book, becoming the all-time single-season leader in rebounds at Idaho.

Charlotte Otero
Newlee's hand also appeared in the crowd-pleasing upstyle game the Vandals played, as opposed to the more deliberate style of years past. The Vandals kept fans on the edges of their seats in the Cowan Spectrum. In addition, the defensive strategies the Vandals drew up for their opponents created havoc throughout the conference. Idaho was the only team to sweep WAC champion and NCAA team Fresno State, and after a 55-52 Vandal victory in Fresno, some of the Bulldog players were quoted as saying "We've never seen that defense before."

Newlee's players, though short-handed on the bench, relished playing in the more wide-open style his coaching staff brought to the game. The Vandals conquered a number of "dragons" on the season, save one: They still have not been able to defeat Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters, like a couple of other teams in the WAC (Nevada and Utah State) are blessed with abundant height and a tough physical presence the Vandals simply could not match this season.

Still, Idaho went into the WAC tournament as the #4 seed and fell in overtime by a single point to Utah State when a well-conceived last-second play fell apart as an Idaho player was tripped up in the key. Utah State wound up with the win, only to fall to Nevada in overtime in the semifinals. Carrying things one step further Nevada lost to Fresno State in the finals, probably a bitter pill for the Vandals to swallow.

Still, when it came time to hold "Senior Night" at the Cowan Spectrum the Vandals had to beg off. There were no seniors in the program. Otero will be a senior next year. Olorunnife, Alana Curtis and Rachele Kloke will be juniors. Newlee and his staff have two or three players on the redshirt bench who will play next year, and they have already signed new players who will arrive next fall. The opening of the spring signing period is April 15 with possibly more pleasant surprises in the offing.

In the meantime, the Vandals proved that they have the ability and stamina to compete in the WAC. Newlee was named conference Coach of the Year, guiding the Vandals to a tie for third in the standings after having been picked to finish ninth in the pre-season coaches poll and eighth in the media poll. Taleni, a junior guard from Santa Clara by way of DeAnza College in Cupertino CA, was named WAC Newcomer of the Year. Her 31 points against Utah State was the conference's best this season and she scored in double figures in 20 of Idaho's 27 games. Olorunnife, after earning a spot on last year's all-freshman team, averaged a double-double in WAC play and was named Second Team All-WAC and to the first team all-WAC defensive team. Her most outstanding achievement this season was collecting 310 rebounds. That mark gives her the UI single-season record, eclipsing the old record of 277 set by Vandal Hall of Famer Denise Brose in 1990-91.

Derisa Taleni
WAC Newcomer of the Year
Those two Vandals were joined by Kuehu who led all WAC freshmen in scoring 11.8 per game, rebounding (5.5), field goal percentage (.447), 3-point percentage (,389), 3-pointers made per game (1.75), and steals (1.94). Her 3-point percentage was fourth in the WAC, and her field goal percentage led the Vandals and was sixth overall in the WAC. She scored in double digits in 14 of 16 WAC games, and achieved that milestone 18 games overall on the season for the Vandals, who won the vast majority of the games where Kuehu hit in double figures.

Placing Olorunnife and Taleni on the All-Conference teams extends a remarkable Vandal streak of 13 consecutive years with an all-conference player since 1`996-97. Since Idaho moved up to NCAA Division I, Idaho has had an all-conference player in 26 of 27 seasons.

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