The Idaho Vandals lost for the fifth straight time Saturday night, scoring just 18 points in the second half of a 60-48 loss to Utah State. But it wasn’t so much about their off-kilter performance as it was Utah State’s brilliant defense and precise execution. The Aggies are exceptionally well coached by Stew Morrill, who collected win No. 500 against his old assistant. Read on for more.
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – Efficient, precise, never flashy – all three have been trademarks of Stew Morrill’s clubs at Utah State. And the Aggies did nothing Saturday night to persuade Idaho followers otherwise.
In fact, Utah State seemed to take an extra bit of pleasure in turning a 60-48 win into sheer drudgery for Vandal players and the 2,570 fans at Cowan Spectrum.
Yep, it was just how Morrill was meant to bag his 500th career victory.
“We’re pretty good at making the game ugly,” Morrill said after his milestone win. “Our defense gets people slowed down a little bit.”
The Vandals (8-9, 1-5) mustered just 18 points in the second half to lose their fifth straight – all Western Athletic Conference games. Going against the Aggies’ harassing zone defense, they had more production after halftime from the free-throw line (10 points) than from the field (eight).
“This is not the lower level part of the league,” UI coach Don Verlin said. “… These guys are efficient and good and we obviously found that out tonight.”
Morrill, in his 24th year overall, became just the 19th active Division I coach to reach the 500-win plateau. A good chunk of those victories came with Verlin, his longtime assistant at Colorado State and USU, by his side.
“But make no mistake about it, there’s one man running that program and it’s him,” Verlin said.
Verlin gushed for several minutes about Morrill’s coaching acumen and the consistency he’s brought to Logan, Utah, over the last 12 years. But this wasn’t the way he envisioned his mentor reaching such a landmark.
The Vandals were outrebounded 35-23 and looked lost trying to combat Utah State’s interior strength. USU posts Tai Wesley, Brady Jardine and Nate Bendall combined to go 12 of 17 from the floor for 25 points.
“They kicked our tail on the boards and in the paint,” Verlin said. “It was really about that simple.”
With the game winding down, a healthy Utah State contingent – which included the USU track team in the area for a Washington State meet – started jeering UI students and players. Aggie supporters were particularly boisterous after Jeff Ledbetter didn’t draw iron on a 3-pointer late in the game.
It was one of several Vandal airballs in the second half.
“We’re on a little uptick and Idaho’s on a little downtick,” said Morrill, whose team has won five straight and is 15-6, 5-2 in the WAC. “They’ll bounce back. Coach V will get them playing. I’m sure of that.
“It’s just (a) fun win for us; tough loss for him. I know how that feels.”
The Vandals got 16 points from guard Kashif Watson, the only UI player to reach double figures. He put in four straight points to pump some life into the crowd and cut USU’s lead to 52-40 with 9:29 left.
Yet the Aggies’ precision and unrelenting defense rarely wavered, and Utah State kept a double-digit lead throughout the second half.
“Nobody on our team envisioned this,” Watson said of being 1-5 and in eighth place in the WAC. “We at least would say we’d be 5-1.”
UI has a chance to stem the tide Monday against Boise State, which is winless in the WAC. Tipoff is 8 p.m. at Cowan Spectrum.