It looked like Idaho might absorb another excruciating loss after going up big on Chicago State. This time, though, it was the Vandals who made the winning plays in the closing seconds -- on the road, no less.
Connor Hill carried Idaho in the first half and buried the game-clinching free throws with 6 seconds left in the Vandals' 79-76 win at Chicago State on Thursday night. UI nearly let a 17-point lead disappear, but the Cougars missed four straight foul shots and threw the ball away with 11 seconds left to help Idaho escape.
This was the first road win for Idaho (13-17, 6-9 WAC) since Jan. 9 and just its fourth of the season. It is a game behind Chicago and UMKC, which are both 7-8 in conference play. The Vandals wrap up the regular season at UMKC on Saturday night.
"Thank God they missed some free throws down the stretch and we pulled one out," UI coach Don Verlin said. "This game shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but I’m happy as heck that we got a win. It’s a big win as far as the standings go and the seeding goes for the conference tournament.”
If the season ended tonight, the Vandals would be the fifth seed in the eight-team WAC tournament next week in Las Vegas. But if they beat UMKC and Chicago State loses to Seattle U, the Vandals, Kangaroos and Cougars would finished tied at 7-9. A tiebreaker would then decide the seeding (if head-to-head records don't settle it, it goes by the teams' record vs. the top seed and so on).
Both UMKC and Idaho are playing well heading into their regular-season finale. UMKC beat Seattle U on Thursday night and has won three straight. Idaho has won three of four games.
Hill, as he has done lately, has been an offensive catalyst for the Vandals. He had 27 points -- 22 of which came in the first half -- and sank 7 of 9 3-pointers. His outburst came after going for 18 last week at Seattle U and scoring 28 (with 8 triples) against Cal State Northridge on Feb. 18.
The key stat for Idaho on Thursday night: 18 assists on 25 made field goals. The Vandals came into the game with assists on just 45 percent of their made field goals. But in three of the last four games, they've assisted on over 60 percent of their makes. The Vandals have started to push the ball up the court more often, and it's helped kick-start their offense.
Here's the full recap from UI:
CHICAGO – Connor Hill, Idaho’s most prolific 3-point shooter, connected on 7-of-9 3s and the Idaho men’s basketball team hung on for a 79-76 win at Chicago State on Thursday night.
Hill finished with 27 points, two shy of his career-high, with his fourth game of seven-or-more 3-pointres this season. Stephen Madison had a 17-point, 10 rebound double-double and Sekou Wiggs added 16 points off the bench for the Vandals. Mike Scott had nine assists and just two turnovers while scoring seven points in the game.
“I thought we played with a lot of energy and intensity, especially in the first half,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “Our ball really moved well tonight, we got a lot of easy looks in transition. For about 30 minutes of this game we really dominated them.”
Idaho had 18 assists on 25 made field goals in the game but 19 turnovers, allowing the Cougars to hang around. Hill’s seventh and final 3-pointer gave the Vandals a 51-34 lead with 17:13 to play, but from there on out, the Cougars outscored the Vandals 42-28 to give the Vandals all they could handle.
“Hill hit a number of open shots and we did a very nice job early in the game executing our offense,” Verlin said. “We were ready for everything they threw at us with their traps and different defenses.”
CSU pulled within one a 72-71 with 2:13 to play and after Wiggs hit one of two free throws, the Cougars missed four consecutive free throw attempts, allowing the Vandals to hang on to the lead. Idaho hit six free throws in the final 30 seconds to clinch the victory.
The Cougars hit just 16-of-29 free throws in the game, while Idaho connected on 20-of-28 attempts. Idaho held a 36-28 rebounding advantage and a 10-9 edge on the offensive glass.
“With about 10 minutes to play, for whatever reason, we made some errors and they’re a good team, they made some shots,” Verlin said of Chicago State’s attempted comeback. “Thank God they missed some free throws down the stretch and we pulled one out. This game shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but I’m happy as heck that we got a win. It’s a big win as far as the standings go and the seeding goes for the conference tournament.”
The Vandals improve to 13-17 on the season and 6-9 in Western Athletic Conference play with the win, while Chicago State drops to 12-18 and 7-8 in WAC play.
Hill’s seven 3-pointers are tied for the fifth most in a game in Idaho history, and it’s the second time he’s done it this season in addition to his game with eight 3-pointers on Feb. 18.
The Vandals wrap up the regular season at Kansas City on Saturday, with a 7:35 p.m. (PT) tip-off. With Idaho winning three of its last four games heading into the season-finale, Verlin likes what he has seen from his team lately.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys,” he said. “I’m happy as heck to get a win. What we’ve got to do now is recharge our battery and get another one at Kansas City. We’re starting to play better. We’ve got to keep being aggressive and keep moving the ball.”
The WAC tournament is Mar. 13-15 in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. Idaho entered Thursday’s game with the possibility of earning as high as the No. 4 seed.