The Vandals looked they had their signature win of the season. But with 2.9 seconds left, Nevada’s Armon Johnson came up clutch and UI was left smarting after a 67-66 loss. A crowd of just 1,580 was on hand. More details can be found in my game story below.
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – A key element in Idaho’s mini late-season resurgence has been a sprinkling of contributions from just about everyone. And Wednesday night, the Vandals’ reserves glimmered more than ever.
Unfortunately for Idaho, Nevada’s superb trio of scorers came up even bigger.
Armon Johnson drove the length of the court and converted a three-point play with 2.9 seconds left to propel the Wolf Pack to a stirring 67-66 triumph over the Vandals at Cowan Spectrum.
In front of a national television audience on ESPN2, Idaho mustered an epic rally, coming back from a 16-point deficit in the second half and eventually building a five-point lead inside 5 minutes left.
But Nevada rattled off nine points in the final 38.8 seconds, the final six coming from Johnson. The junior guard from Reno finished with 23 points while Luke Babbitt had 21 points and Brandon Fields added 11.
After Johnson’s last-second heroics, UI point guard Mac Hopson fielded a length-of-the-court pass and nudged around a defender. But his open, off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer clanged off the side of the rim.
The Vandals, who had won three of four, fell to 11-12 and 3-8 in the Western Athletic Conference after their second heartbreaking home loss in the last two weeks. The setback came despite a 6-of-6 showing from the free-throw line the final minute.
Afterward, Idaho coach Don Verlin didn’t hide his distaste for the officiating. In particular, he was upset that officials didn’t call Babbitt for traveling near midcourt before Johnson’s late 3.
“A poorly officiated game,” Verlin said. “I don’t care if the WAC fines me or not. … I thought it was very, very inconsistent and the WAC office will hear from me tomorrow.
“… We’re no longer a doormat. We’re a contender in this league, and the officials need to figure it out.”
Nevada trailed 62-58 inside 60 seconds left before Babbitt came up with a three-point play. After two free throws from Kashif Watson, Johnson splashed in a 3 from the right wing – the same spot that Boise State’s Anthony Thomas’ clutch trey came two weeks earlier – to tie the game at 64-all.
Hopson then hit two more freebies with 6.2 seconds remaining to set the stage for Johnson’s drive. The Nevada standout muscled into the lane and drew a foul from Kashif Watson as his layin spun around the rim before falling.
“What’s frustrating is that we did everything we needed to win this game,” Verlin said. “… We made free throws, we didn’t turn the ball over.”
Down by 16 early in the second half, Idaho relied on key reserves during a 24-5 onslaught that spanned 111/2 minutes. Shawn Henderson connected on a putback and Jeff Ledbetter sank an off-balance 3 late in the shot clock to push UI within 49-44.
As Idaho mounted a charge, the Wolf Pack finally cooled from long range. UNR started the game by drilling 9 of 12 3-point attempts but missed seven consecutive shots as UI scored 13 unanswered points.
The Vandals’ bench played lights-out throughout the rally. Luciano de Souza and Kyle Barone hit back-to-back shots, then Ledbetter drained another 3 at the 6:35 mark to give Idaho its first lead since midway through the first half.
Barone, who came in averaging 4.4 points, then rattled in consecutive hook shots in the lane, and Idaho suddenly led 59-54.