Vandals triumph over Fresno State

NO ONE WAS WILLING TO CALL IT a "do or die" or "win or go home" game, but after a gut-wrenching loss Monday to Boise State to extend a six game WAC losing streak, there was a lot riding on the outcome of Thursday night's game between the Vandals and Fresno State in the Cowan Spectrum. Idaho (9-10, 2-6 WAC) rose to the challenge, downing the Bulldogs (11-11, 4-4 WAC) 74-59 in convincing fashion.

On Kashif Watson's birthday the Vandals put four players in double figures, shot 68% from the floor in the second half (53% on the game), hit 86% of their free throws, and turned the ball over only 11 times posting a 74-59 victory.

You might as well say it now and get it out of the way. Fresno was playing without stellar sophomore Paul George who is still recovering from an injury. George is being followed by NBA scouts and is one of the top pro prospects in the conference…but George was also on the shelf and did not play Saturday when the Bulldogs posted an impressive 87-77 win over Nevada; so it goes without saying that the visitors came in with a team capable of playing with anyone in the WAC on any given night.

Fresno has a pair of 6-10 forwards who have a reputation of being tough in the paint; so the Vandals prepared accordingly. However, in keeping with what has been a snake-bit season the Vandals saw the duo shoot lights out in the first half, including a handful of three's. The Bulldogs led by as many as five points and, with the score tied 30-30 in the waning moments of the opening period, Fresno was working for the last shot hoping to take the lead, and the momentum, into the locker room.

Working the clock, the Bulldogs were content to pass the ball around the top of the key looking for an opening, but with six seconds left point guard Stephen Shepp had trouble getting a pass off. Vandal post Marvin Jefferson saw the pass coming, stepped in, and took off down the court with the Bulldogs in pursuit. Jefferson went in for the slam and had to hang onto the rim as the horn sounded and the ball dropped through. The Vandals celebrated as they left the floor with a 32-30 lead, but the officials delayed their exit and headed for the official scorer's table to watch a video replay to determine if Jefferson let go of the ball before the horn sounded or if they would wave off the score and the game would be tied at 30 to start the second half.

Eventually the score was counted and the Vandals went on to the victory.

Vandal guard Kashif Watson, who was celebrating a birthday Thursday night, said the play was something Jefferson has been dreaming about. "That's Marvin's dream, man, to take a steal and go coast-to-coast; so we were all happy for him," Watson said. "That's good, to get our big man out in the transition, starting the break and finishing up with a dunk at the half."

Coach Don Verlin was succinct: "Huge play. Unbelievable play," Verlin said. "We were in what we call a left situation. We force someone left, and we were actually trying to foul because we had a foul to give and we fouled once. I think they got in a little bit of a rush and Marv just shot the lane and made a great play. That was a huge play in the context of the game. To myself I thought, ‘Oh, God. Here comes our end of the first half deal again where we've out played ‘em and we hadn't played quite as good as we had the last three minutes of the half, and then Marv makes the big play and that momentum really helped us in the second half. No question."

Verlin said he had no idea the play was under review as the Vandals headed for the locker room. He did admit if the score had been overturned he would have been upset when returning to the floor to start the second half.

Jefferson's play was crucial, but there were several factors in the Vandal win. Verlin went down the list.

"We passed the ball better tonight from all five spots. Hop (Mac Hopson) was 6 and 2 (assists to turnovers). (Kashif) Watson was 3 assists, no turnovers," the coach said. "Steffan (Johnson) had a couple there late but he had four assists. I thought our post passing was good. We really passed the ball well tonight and that's what really helped us."

Offensively the Vandals made a concerted effort to distribute the ball to all five players, work for good shots, and most importantly get the posts involved in the offense. "I liked the shot distribution," he said. "If you look back we probably haven't gotten our posts enough shots. We probably haven't pounded it down low enough, and tonight we got (Luis) Toledo and Jefferson both 9 shots each and they delivered. Both those kids are high percentage shooters. We did a good job getting it down low. I thought Lucy (de Sosa) got some good looks too; he just missed ‘em. Shots that he's normally used to making. All of his three looks were good looks tonight. I liked our shots tonight."

Calling Toledo a high percentage shooter was an understatement. The soft spoken 6-8 forward from Brazil made good on 8 of 9 field goal attempts, and Jefferson was 5 for 9.

Verlin said areas that had been weaknesses turned into strengths for the Vandals.

"We made some free throws. We took care of the ball. For whatever reason the boys were locked in. I think they were just so determined to make sure we got this one done. It's not easy. You lose one to Boise State, your in-state rivals, on a tough, tough shot and have the game basically won. Those boys have had their hearts ripped out, and I can't tell you how proud I am for them to come back and play and practice the way they did the last two days. It's a good thing. A good thing for our team."

Defensively the Vandals made the adjustments to stop Fresno's surprisingly strong outside shooting attack. "When we started off the night we felt that Greg Smith and Sylvester Seay were the key to the game; so we were doubling big to big early in the game," Verlin said. "Then Seay steps out and makes three three-pointers…so we had to adjust that. That's where I thought we did a great job. We kinda changed our cover down philosophy in the second half and went to a little bit more zone. We got spread out a little bit in the zone, but at half they had made six three-pointers and they had made a lot of threes. They were six for 13 at half, 46%, and coming in they were 34%; so we had to adjust a little bit there in the second half. But I thought our guys did a good job. and we did a little bit better job guarding the three-point line in the second half."

The Vandals put four players in double figures led by Hopson with 21, Toledo with 16, Watson with 12 and Jefferson with 10. Steffan Johnson was not far behind with 8. Luciano de Souza was the top Vandal rebounder with 5, Hopson and Toledo had 4. Hopson also collected 6 assists and 2 steals.

Everyone agreed it was a great team effort.

"The team played great tonight," Hopson said. "We played good together. Played defense, offense, took care of the ball pretty good I thought. Overall we just played a great game. Good team effort tonight…We stuck together. We didn't hang our heads. We were just mentally all in there, every guy from 1 through 15 or 16 guys we have on the team. Everybody was mentally prepared for this game, and everybody was ready."

"The middle of the second half we kept going, we kept fighting, we kept pushing at ‘em and then down the last five minutes they just kinda wore out and we kinda kept going and kept it in there. We executed our game plan, really, to the T." Watson said.

"I had a pretty good night," Toledo admitted. "I had open looks. We ran the plays. We did exactly what we were supposed to do so I got open looks. My teammates helped me. They found me at the right time in the right spot. That helped a lot."

Verlin expanded on the theme. "You've gotta give our players credit tonight. It's been hard. It's been hard on them," said the coach. "I know it's hard on our fans, I know it's hard on the students, I know it's hard on the coaches, but it's really hard on the players because every day they come to work and every day they've got to listen to me and every day they've got to listen to, ‘What's wrong? What's going on.' You've gotta give them credit because they haven't quit, they haven't backed off…Like I've told you all along I think you're going to see this team play some really good basketball, and I've said that a number of times, and tonight was the start of it.

"We haven't been that far off. The league's really good this year. We were able to sneak up on some people last year. We won a ton of close games," Verlin continued. "We haven't been very far off. I've really felt that, and I think the players have really felt that. It was nice tonight to find a way to kinda get it done. We've led a number of games in the second half, late in the second half. As coaches you analyze everything and probably over analyze things, but we've worked so hard on those situations. To be honest with you I don't know if it helps or hurts but you've got to do it, and I think tonight we made some big plays. We made some big defensive plays. Mac made a couple of big shots and Marcus Lawrence hit a huge three. It was good to find a way to get it done."

Hopson underlined the fact that the Vandals have never waivered in the belief that they can – and will -- turn things around. He also had a message for Vandal fans.

"We stuck together," he said. "We didn't hang our heads. We're gonna keep fighting from here on out. Hopefully we get a streak going. We're gonna keep fighting no matter what to the end of the season…Hopefully Vandal nation's got our back. It sounds like you don't, but we're gonna keep fighting as a team. We're together. I feel like we're together. Chemistry is building; so we're just having fun out there and listening to our coaching staff."

Idaho is at Key Arena Saturday for a non-conference matchup against Seattle University then faces Utah State next Wednesday in an ESPNU game, and finishes the three-game road swing in Boise a week from Saturday.

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