Vandals down SJSU, set sights on Hawaii

THE VANDALS BURST OUT OF THE GATE Thursday night at the Cowan Spectrum, building an 18-point lead over San Jose State that propelled Idaho to a key 86-76 victory. Idaho's record now stands at 14-15 on the season (5-10 WAC), with the season finale and "Senior Night" set for Saturday night against Hawaii (tipoff 5:05pm PST). "This win is huge," coach V said. "It gets us in the WAC tournament."

More than once in the past several weeks Idaho basketball coach Don Verlin has emphasized how important it is for his seniors to step up and provide leadership to this Vandal team. Idaho struggled through the heart of the 2010 WAC basketball schedule and entered the final week of the regular season needing at least one win to qualify for the conference tournament next week in Reno.

Thursday night at the Cowan Spectrum, with a berth in the WAC tournament on the line, Verlin lined up against the San Jose State Spartans with an all-senior starting five. Verlin sent Luciano DeSouza, Mac Hopson, Marvin Jefferson, Steffan Johnson and Kashif Watson to the floor to face the Spartans and inaugurate what he called "senior week," the last time they would play home games representing the University of Idaho.

In what may have been their best 20 minutes at home since their win over Portland in December, the seniors rose to the challenge. Normally a 3-point artist off the bench, de Souza set the tone for the game by crashing the offensive boards for two put backs and the first four points of the game. Jefferson, who was a huge inside presence all night long, hit a short hook making it 6-0 just 87-seconds into the contest. Meanwhile Hopson and Johnson stepped up defensively against first team all-WAC candidate Adrian Oliver, the transfer from UW, holding him to 1-for-6 shooting in the first half.

The last senior starter put a double underline on the opening stanza in the final split second. After Mac Peterson missed a 3-pointer with about 3 seconds left, Watson grabbed the rebound and took a couple of dribbles, then decided not to just run out the clock but instead cast off from 75-feet away (standing just about in the area of the Spartan 3-point arc). The ball flew straight and true, bounced off the square on the backboard and dove into the net to make it 45-27 Vandals. The normally talkative Watson watched the shot go in then jogged off the court without a word or gesture.

ESPN, which was televising the game on a regional basis, made the shot the number two play of the day on Thursday evening's edition of "Sports Center."

"I actually watched it go in, " Watson told the media after the game, "but I was surprised that it went in. I kinda heaved it. I didn't think it was gonna hit the glass and go in." Asked why he didn't show any emotion after the basket, Watson was honest: "It was just luck. Ride with it."

The second half also started well, keyed by Johnson's rare four-point play (being fouled while sinking a three-point attempt and nailing the free throw) which boosted the lead to 22 with 13:25 remaining. But the Spartans made a comeback as the second half progressed, riding their outside shooting back into contention. Ranked #8 in the country in three-point shooting coming in, the Spartans hit seven from beyond the arc, including three-straight in a span of 1:40 to dig into Idaho's lead. But the visitors never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

In fact, Idaho never trailed.

Verlin talked about starting the seniors. "I did that for senior week," he said. "I kinda deemed this as ‘senior week.' Luciano hasn't started a lot of games since he's been here, and he will start again on Saturday night. But it was more a case of for all five seniors starting here this last week for senior week…He played well, he rebounded the ball well. I thought his tip-ins early really helped us, got us going. He didn't make a three-pointer tonight but did a good job rebounding the basketball; he had 8 points and 7 rebounds and I was very happy with his play.

"I thought we played really well in the first half, especially defensively," Verlin continued. "I thought we did a great job on Adrian Oliver. I thought Mac did an excellent job the first little bit. He kinda got a cheap foul there to start the game and then got a charging foul, but then Shawn Henderson came in and did a very nice job on (Oliver), and I think that was really the difference in the first half. Then Marvin (Jefferson) played very well in the first. He had maybe eight or ten points in the first half but he took three big charges. I thought he changed the whole flow of the game in the first half. It's a tribute to him, and you've got to give him the credit. He's been really playing well these last three weeks of the year."

The coach was asked about the importance of the victory. "This win is huge. It gets us in the WAC tournament. There would have been a lot of pressure on Saturday's game if we hadn't won this game. It's a huge win."

He also gave a lot of the credit to his seniors. "I couldn't be prouder of our seniors. They've done a great job since they've been here – 31 wins is the (best) two-year win total in about 18 years. They battled all year. This year hasn't gone perfectly, but they found a way to fight and continue to fight. They haven't given up.

"You get a win and maybe you get a little momentum going into the WAC Tournament, and as we all know anything can happen when you get a Nevada, New Mexico State, La Tech. We've proven we can play each and every one of those teams close, and now it's our turn to get a victory hopefully." Verlin then backed off a bit and focused on the task at hand, Saturday's 5 p.m. game against Hawai'i. "We live to play on," he said. "I told our guys our March Madness has already started. We've got to do everything we can to beat Hawaii on Saturday and then get ready to go play next week. But first things first. Let's get ready to beat Hawaii on Saturday.

In the final statistics four Vandals scored in double figures and two more wound up with eight. Idaho held a 34-27 rebounding edge, outscored the Spartans 40-32 in the paint, handed out an amazing 18 assists and turned the ball over only 11 times. Shooting-wise the Vandals shot 55.6% from the floor (30 of 54), 54.5% on 3-pointers (6 of 11), and 62.5% from the free throw line (20 of 32). Hopson and Watson led the scoring with 17 points each. Watson added a team best 8rebounds 7 assists and 2 steals. Hopson added 4 assists, a steal and 3 rebounds. Jefferson posted 15 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. Johnson also reached double figures in the point department with 10 to go along with 5 assists and 4 rebounds. De Souza checked out with 8 points, 7 rebounds and a steal. Kyle Barone finished with 8 points, 3 rebounds and two assists. Henderson had 6 points, 4 rebounds and a steal, Marcus Lawrence had 3 points, and Luis Toledo had 2 points and a rebound.

NOTE: The University of Idaho released a statement this afternoon that senior Kashif Watson has been suspended for the season finale Saturday night.

"Kashif's suspension is a matter that he must work through in order to be reinstated for practice and play," Verlin said. "The matter will be revisited prior to the WAC Tournament next week."

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