The Vandals won for the 11th time at home Thursday -- not that anyone on the Palouse seems to be taking notice. Just 1,803 fans showed up to watch Idaho dispatch Louisiana Tech 66-58 and inch up the WAC standings.
Keep reading for my unedited game story from wintry Moscow. One note that not's included in the game story: Idaho outrebounded La Tech 37-27, a pretty remarkable feat for the WAC's worst rebounding team. In coach Don Verlin's words, "As I told this team, we're starting to show some toughness. And if we'll show some toughness and we'll rebound the basketball, we can make some noise in the WAC tournament. We're starting to improve on our biggest weakness, and that's what I'm so happy about."
By JOSH WRIGHT
OF THE TRIBUNE
MOSCOW – The only thing, it seems, missing from the revival of Idaho men's basketball is a fan base to take part in all the winning.
The late-charging Vandals continued to sparkle at the Cowan Spectrum with a 66-58 conquest of Louisiana Tech on Thursday. But just 1,803 people trudged into the arena on a snowy night to see the club collect its 11th home win of the season.
“I disappointed for the people who didn't come because they're missing a good show,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “... They missed a hell of a game tonight.”
Idaho reached the 15-win plateau for the first time since the 1998-99 season by outlasting a Bulldogs squad that came in on a four-game winning streak. UI is now alone in fourth place in the Western Athletic Conference.
With their fifth win in six outings, the Vandals (15-14, 8-7) are guaranteed no worse than fifth place heading into the final game of the season Saturday versus Fresno State. A win and Boise State loss to Nevada would give UI the No. 3 seed in next week's WAC tournament.
“This is a good win for us,” said Verlin, whose club was tabbed in the preseason to finish last in the WAC. “A really big win. I can't tell you how big a win it is for our program.”
Idaho was carried again by the resurgent Trevor Morris, who's shaken off a miserable start to the season. The senior guard buried a pivotal 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to put
the Vandals ahead 54-48 at the 3:20 mark, then came up with a steal and two free throws in crunch time.
Morris tallied 14 points while point guard Mac Hopson scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Center Marvin Jefferson also had 13 points to go along with eight rebounds.
The Vandals played one of of their shakiest first halves of the season, yet they trailed just 26-25 at the break. Idaho had three more turnovers (11) than made field goals made and never settled into an offensive groove against tenacious defense from Louisiana Tech (12-19, 6-10).
Hopson was particularly out of sync. He went 0 for 4 from the field, 0 for 3 from the foul line and turned it over twice.
“We started off slow,” Hopson said. “Me personally, I wasn't worried about it, though. I knew as soon as I was going to hit (a shot), a couple more were going to fall.”
The Vandals opened up their biggest lead of the game, 48-41, with 6:56 left with a nifty baseline drive from Morris, who handed it off to Jefferson for an easy dunk.
But Louisiana Tech made a charge behind the superb shooting of Kyle Gibson. The Bulldogs' leading scorer knocked in seven straight points at one point and finished with 25 on 6-of-8 shooting from the beyond the arc.
“Gibson, what about some of those shots?” Verlin said. “He might be the best player in the league with how he played tonight.”
However, the Vandals prodded eight turnovers from Gibson and 17 overall from the Bulldogs. It was a sharp contrast from Jan. 17, when La Tech rolled to a 74-63 home win over Idaho.
The Vandals weren't able to breath easy until the final seconds. Gibson's 3 with 18.9 ticks left cut UI's lead to 63-58. Idaho then knocked down 3 of 4 free throws to seal the win.
“They hit some big shots,” Morris said. “It seemed like every time we got a lead they would hit a big 3.”