MOSCOW, Idaho – It was a theme circulating through the Idaho Vandals’ locker room after their game Sunday: They finally earned their paychecks.
“This group has worked really, really hard,” Idaho coach George Pfiefer said, “and for them to get their payday (today) was deserving.”
In the midst of a six-game losing streak, the Vandals (2-6) took to their home court ready to shut down Eastern Washington (3-8). They dominated, taking the non-conference game 58-49.
But the final score is somewhat deceptive. The Vandals jumped out to a 7-0 lead, then allowed the Eagles to catch up and take a lead. But for 15 minutes – the last 10 minutes of the first half and the first five of the second – the Vandals held Eastern Washington without a field goal.
On UI’s 22-3 run, the Eagles’ only points were free throws.
“We weren’t ready to play; we weren’t ready to compete,” EWU coach Kirk Earlywine said. “We were noncompetitive, and that falls on me. That falls right on me, as the head coach.”
It was a slew of missed shots – 17 – and turnovers – six. The Eagles hit just 31 percent of their shots in the game.
Eastern’s Gary Gibson, who led all scorers with a season-high 18 points, said he tried to bring his team back in the last part of the second half. With 4:30 to play, the Eagles drove back to within five points.
“We came out bad in the first half; we didn’t do too good,” the sophomore guard said. “We tried to pick it up in the second half, but it was too late.”
Fifteen of Gibson’s points came in the second half, and he twice stole the ball from the Vandals as his team fought back.
The effort just wasn’t enough, even as teammate Kellen Williams registered a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Pfeifer said EWU’s late fight was a result of his Vandals getting comfortable and dropping their aggressiveness.
“Those two things are byproducts of somebody that hasn’t been in that situation enough to know how to close somebody out,” he said.
To their coach, the Vandals looked like a team that had not won a game for a while, Pfeifer said.
“We gotta keep our intensity up the whole game and play the whole 40 minutes,” said Idaho forward Darin Nagle. “You can’t play 35 minutes. You can’t give them runs like that.
“We knew coming in here we were the better team, or at least thought we were the better team, and we could do what we wanted to do to them. Really, we should have beaten them by a few more points.”
Nagle, who averaged 7.7 points per game before Sunday, was held to just four. But his six defensive rebounds helped keep the Eagles at bay.
Forward Jordan Brooks led the Vandals with 14 points, sinking 5 of 9 shots and hitting 4 of 5 from the free-throw line. His free throws helped extend the Vandals’ lead in the final minutes of the game, when Eastern started intentionally fouling.
Earlywine walked away from the game frustrated and disappointed, especially after his Eagles dropped an early 14-9 lead.
“Too often our team becomes offensive-sensitive when shots aren’t going in; when they’re missing shots,” Earlywine said. “So instead of becoming more determined, more resolute on the defensive end and on the glass, we drop our heads a little bit.”
Gibson said the answer is simple: play harder and practice harder.
“You practice how you play, so you have to practice hard for things to work out during the game,” he said.
The Eagles will prepare for a home game against Cascade on Friday with that in mind.
For the Vandals, who are at South Dakota State on Saturday, Sunday’s win was big.
“We’ve been working (hard), trying to get through this (rough streak) and going into real long practices trying to get better,” Nagle said. “It’s just one of those things that we just got paid off tonight.
“We worked hard and we got our paycheck, so now we gotta go back to work and keep getting paychecks every day.”