As I wrote this morning, there was no reason to think Idaho -- teetering at 11-11 -- could topple Nevada. But the circumanstances around this matchup made me wonder if it would at least be a close game, and it was more than that. The Vandals were clearly the better team in the second half, and they used a little luck in the final minute to secure a 72-68 victory in Reno and end the Wolf Pack's 16-game winning streak.
Read on for a recap and reaction from the Vandals' best win of the year.
How's this for contrasts? In Thursday's loss at Fresno State, Idaho shot 28 percent in the first half and trailed by 17 points to the then-seventh place team in the WAC. Juxtapose that icy stretch with what happened Saturday night. The Vandals connected on their first nine field goals of the second half to surge ahead of a team that hadn't lost since Nov. 25 and beat UI by 18 a month ago.
Idaho's first miss from the field after halftime didn't come until under the 7-minute mark, and it wasn't like UI was getting dunk after dunk. The team hit five 3-pointers in the second half, and Stephen Madison and Connor Hill combined to go 7 of 10 from long range in the Vandals' upset win.
Easily the biggest shot of the night came from Kyle Barone, who had 16 points and seven rebounds. With 38 seconds left and UI up by one, he was fouled and threw up a prayer, as Spencer Farrin from UI media relations described it. The shot caromed high off the rim and managed to go in. Barone completed the three-point play, and the Vandals led 67-63.
“We had a number of guys step up and make big plays, but none bigger than Kyle Barone’s last play that he throws to the rafters and somehow finds a way to fall through the net,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said.
But it was far from only Barone who helped Verlin collect what has to be one of the most satsifying wins of his four-year tenure in Moscow. Madison, after going scoreless and fouling out on Thursday, had 18 points in a 7-fo-10 effort from the field. Deremy Geiger pumped in 16 points -- including a big 3 to put Idaho up 60-58 with 5:24 left -- and had two steals. Point guard Landon Tatum played solid defense on Deonte Burton and put up a sparking stat line: nine assists, two turnovers, six points, five rebounds and a steal.
Madison, Geiger and Tatum are starters, but the bench also contributed. Hill, a freshman from Post Falls, had 11 points in 13 minutes. And Mansa Habeeb hit a key free throw with 17 seconds left to make it a two-possession game, 70-66.
“Connor Hill came off the bench and gave us a lift when we needed it, then Deremy Geiger knocked down some huge shots and Stephen Madison probably played his best game of the last five or six games,” Verlin said.
Added Verlin, whose team has won at Nevada three of the last four years: "The bottom line is we played very, very well, we executed our game plan and the shots went in. Hopefully we can continue that. We’ve got three big games at home this week.”
The Vandals' slate next week starts with Seattle U at Cowan Spectrum on Tuesday night, followed by two WAC games that loom large -- second-place New Mexico State on Thursday and Louisiana Tech on Saturday.
Just like that, Idaho (12-11, 5-4) is in much better shape in the WAC. The race at the top has also tightened. Nevada (19-4, 8-1) is now just 1.5 games ahead of NMSU (17-7, 6-2) and 2.5 games ahead of Hawaii (13-9, 5-3). Idaho is in fourth place, a half-game back of UH.
Suddenly, a third seed -- or possibly even a two seed -- in the WAC tournament is up for grabs for the Vandals.