The Idaho basketball team entered the week with three road wins all year. In the span of three days, it pocketed two victories away from Moscow -- and the latest was arguably the Vandals' most impressive road victory of the season.
Idaho thundered back from a late 10-point deficit to dispatch the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 87-80, in Kansas City. Senior Stephen Madison poured in 26 points and Connor Hill had 24 for the rejuvenated Vandals (14-17, 7-9), who finished the regular season by snatching their fourth win in five games.
“We’re playing our best basketball," sixth-year coach Don Verlin said. "If this team will make a bigger commitment to defense and rebounding, we’ll have a chance to win the WAC tournament."
The fifth-seeded Vandals will play fourth-seeded UMKC again in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in Las Vegas. Idaho is still searching for its first WAC tourney win with Verlin at the helm. Its only victory at the WAC tournament came in a play-in game in 2007.
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After coughing a big first-half lead, Idaho ripped off a 17-0 run to go up 80-67 with under 3 minutes left. It was a dramatic reversal from earlier in the second half, when Idaho looked shaky after leading by 11 points before the break.
The biggest difference Saturday night was at the foul line. Idaho outscored UMKC 22-9 at the stripe, with eight free throws coming from Sekou Wiggs. The freshman scored 16 points off the bench in both games of the road sweep, and he was 18 of 22 at the free-throw line.
- Madison closed the regular season as the WAC's leading scoring (19.9 ppg), leapfrogging Isiah Umipig of Seattle U. Hill finished 10th in scoring (14.8 ppg). Idaho and Grand Canyon were the only WAC teams with two top-10 scorers.
- Wiggs, Madison and Hill combined for 66 of Idaho's 87 points, and the Vandals have scored 79 or more points in five of six games.
- Hill, a junior from Post Falls, has been especially on fire of late. He had 27 at Chicago State, 18 at Seattle U last week and 28 in a home over Cal State Northridge on Feb. 18.
The full Idaho recap:
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Idaho men’s basketball team overcame a 10-point second-half deficit to pull out a 87-80 win at Kansas City in the regular season finale on Saturday night, and will face the same Kangaroo squad in the Western Athletic quarterfinals on Mar. 13.
The Vandals fell behind by 10, 65-55, then went on a 25-2 second-half run to take the lead for good en route to their fourth win in their final five regular season games.
“I’m really proud of my guys,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “We’re playing our best basketball. If this team will make a bigger commitment to defense and rebounding, we’ll have a chance to win the WAC tournament. What happened tonight in that run is we were finally able to get some stops and we got out in our transition game, and that’s where we’re best. When we get going in transition, we’re really tough to guard.”
The Vandals shot 51 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in the game, and owned a 37-30 rebounding advantage. UMKC, however, shot the ball a little too well for Verlin’s liking as the teams prepare for a rematch in less than a week, as the ‘Roos hit 30-of-62 shots from the field (48.4 percent) and 11-of-23 3-pointers (47.8 percent).
“The bottom line is we can’t give this team 48 percent from the field and 47 percent from 3 if we expect to win,” he said. “We’ve got to make a commitment to defense and rebounding.”
Idaho will take a 14-17 overall and 7-9 WAC record into the conference tournament. UMKC falls to 10-19 overall and 7-9 in the WAC. Idaho’s win snapped UMKC’s three-game win streak.
Idaho used a strong performance on the glass and a stellar free-throw shooting effort to make its run and hang onto its lead down the stretch. The Vandals hit 22-of-28 free throws in the game, including 21-for-26 in the second half.
Stephen Madison finished with a game-high 26 points on 9-of-17 shooting and added eight rebounds. Connor Hill hit 6-of-10 3-pointers and finished with 24 points and Sekou Wiggs scored exactly 16 points for the sixth time in his last nine games.
The Vandals led by as many as 12 points late in the first half before UMKC used a 20-2 run that bled into the second half as the ‘Roos took control of the game.
“They go on a 20-2 run and that’s just because we’re not defending well enough,” Verlin said. “What’s been our MO this year is when we’re not scoring our ball with ease, we don’t want to defend on the ether end.”
The Vandals will be the No. 5 seed in next week’s tournament as UMKC holds the tie-breaker with identical 7-9 league records. The winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal game will take on the winner of No. 1 Utah Valley and No. 8 Texas-Pan American.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Verlin said. “They did a lot of really good things and they’re really coming together. We’re peaking at the right time and guys have hung tough all year long. These last four or five weeks we’ve played some good basketball. I really think we’re getting better and I really like where this team is at heading into the conference tournament.”