Vandals drop Hawaii 78-69 in season finale

IDAHO CAME INTO THIS "SENIOR WEEK" needing to sweep both home games to give the Vandals a .500 record for the season. Thursday night Idaho (15-15, 6-10 WAC) pounded SJSU. Then on Saturday night, riding the wave of senior STEFFAN JOHNSON'S eight 3-pointers (tied for second most in UI history, and the 19th most in the NCAA this year), Idaho beat Hawaii on Senior Night to finish 7th in the WAC.

Sometimes the things that happen in the background of an event are intriguing, fascinating, ironic… pick your own adverb. There were some interesting "background events" that came into play in the Cowan Spectrum Saturday evening as the Idaho Vandals took to the floor to host the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in the final home game of the 2009-10 season…"Senior Night" for the Vandals.

After Thursday's penultimate night in the WAC, the Vandals had secured a spot in the WAC tournament by beating San Jose State, but their seeding was still up in the air. With a win Saturday the Vandals would be seeded seventh and face the #2 team, either Nevada or New Mexico State. With a loss they'd finish eighth and take on top-seeded Utah State. Hawai'i had a mathematical shot at grabbing the eighth seed in the tournament, but to do that the Warriors had to beat Idaho, San Jose State had to beat Boise State, and Nevada would need to beat Louisiana Tech.

Before the 5 p.m. tipoff, senior Vandal guards Mac Hopson and Steffan Johnson had a little chat about the upcoming game. Johnson came in averaging 9.6 points and just over two 3's a game. Hopson averaged 14.4 points, 4.8 assists and three turnovers. "I told Mac when we were warming up," Johnson told the post-game media conference. "I told him we were gonna come out here and we were gonna put on a show for the fans."

Hawai'i decided to go with a different defensive strategy against Idaho. In the first meeting on the Island the Warriors used a pressure-oriented man-to-man defense and the Vandals were forced to drive the ball inside in the 59-52 win. For Saturday's game the Warriors decided to stick mainly with a tight zone defense packing the key and forcing Idaho to shoot from the outside.

By the time the two teams were ready to tip off it was apparent that BSU was going to dismantle San Jose, and Hawai'i would be playing for pride. It looked as if the visitors decided to get the ball to stellar senior Roderick Flemings as often as they could in his final regular season game.

Just like Johnson told Hopson it would be, the game turned out to be a show for the fans. Actually, a 40-minute offensive highlight film might be a better description.

Flemings won high-point honors with 29 in the game, but Johnson re-wrote the Idaho record book. He took 14 three-point field goal attempts – the most ever by a Vandal in a single game. Even more incredible, he canned eight of them to tie Orlando Lightfoot for second place on the all-time single-game 3-pointers scored list, just behind leader Mike Hall's nine.

Johnson wound up with 28 points in the game to pace the Vandals.

And Johnson would not be alone in success for the Vandals on this night. Hopson, who finished with 15 points, handed out a career high 11 assists. As a team Idaho had an unbelievable 21 assists. Second to Hopson in assists on the game was 6-10 senior post Marvin Jefferson who took passes inside and repeatedly found the open shooter on the perimeter. As a team Idaho canned 14-of-27 three-pointers including three each by Hopson and senior Luciano DeSouza. "Lucy," the always smiling Brazilian, sported his trademark Afro hair style after playing a couple of games braids.

Probably the signature play of the game for Idaho came with about 3-1/2 minutes left. Warrior Hiram Johnson missed a 3-pointer. Marvin Jefferson grabbed the rebound and fired the outlet pass as the Vandal guards sprinted down the floor. Hopson fired a perfect pass to Johnson who was streaking in off his right side, took the ball in stride and underlined the victory with a slam dunk.

Even better than the flashy offensive performance: As a team the Vandals had a season-low five turnovers (they came into the game with a 14.5-per-game average). Suffice it to say Idaho should go into the conference tournament with some much needed momentum.

The media asked Vandal coach Don Verlin to talk about the three-point shooting display. Verlin shook his head and replied, "What can you say when you make 14 of them – 14-for-27. We shot the ball extremely well. I thought we got good looks all night, and then Steffan Johnson caught fire and knocked down a bunch of wide-open looks."

The coach zeroed in on the offensive ball movement which he felt could have been the best he has seen in his two seasons here. "The thing I would tell you is I thought we did as good a job passing the ball to each other as we've done all year and maybe in the two years that I've been here," said Verlin. "Mac Hopson with 11 assists, no turnovers; Marvin Jefferson four assists, no turnovers; and I thought they did a great job of finding the guy with the hot hand and getting it to him, and tonight Steffan delivered. I thought Shawn Henderson came in in a starting roll and played very well when we were kind of in a little bit of a lull there. He got the ball in the paint and scored three consecutive baskets, or three-out-of-four, that really gave us a nice lift as we went through the second half.

"From an offensive standpoint I thought we were very solid. Like I said, I thought we moved the ball well. I thought we shot it well. I thought we executed pretty well. They were changing their defenses between man and 2-3 zone and 1-2-2 zone and they were trying to keep us off balance that way. I thought our guys did a great job adjusting."

Smiles were everywhere. Verlin talked about the senior night win from the perspective of a man who had been there as a player. "A great way to go out. All of us who've played, when you're playing your last game in front of your home fans, if you can come out and have a good night it's something that stays with you for the rest of your life. Stef getting hot from 3 and having his career high. Then Mac having his career high in assists. And then to throw no turnovers on the back side of that, that's a great performance."

Playing with his mom and dad in the stands, Johnson said "I just wanted to finish with a bang, really. Senior night, you want to make it a memorable night and you wanna get the win as well. What more can you say? It might be your last time playing in front of your home crowd, playing with all the guys you've been going to battles with these past seasons. It's a great feeling to be able to come out and compete like that in front of your family, in front of your teammates' families. It's just a great feeling."

Johnson also gave credit to Hopson for his outstanding game. "Granted, I may have shot pretty well, but he had a double-double. He dished out 11 assists; so he gets a lot of credit, too."

Asked about his double-double, Hopson said, "That was my teammates. That was all them. That was Shawn (Henderson) and Steffy (Johnson), 10 three-pointers and Lucy hitting three's. That was all them. That ain't me. I'm just giving them the ball. I give my teammates credit for that.

Henderson looked at the game in terms of giving the team a lift heading into the WAC tournament. "That's been our whole goal this whole year, to play well at the right time, and there can't be any other time that's better than right before you go to the WAC tournament. We had a good week of practice. We have a couple days of practice these next two days, then we just need to keep our momentum and keep our intensity up going into this tournament. We've got a real good chance of doing well."

There was one final background event. In the closing seconds of the game Idaho had the ball and was ready to run out the clock. Hawai'i coach Bob Nash had some reserve players on the bench he wanted to try to get into the final game of the season, but it would not happen unless the Rainbow Warriors could regain control of the ball to take a time out.

Verlin saw what was happening and called a 30-second timeout to stop play so the substitutions could be made.

Idaho will face tournament host Nevada in the first round Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Lawlor Events Center on the Nevada campus. Other first round games include #1 Utah State against #8 BSU at 12 noon on ESPNU; #3 La Tech against #5 Fresno State at 2:30 on ESPNU; and #3 New Mexico State against #6 San Jose State at 8:30 p.m.

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