MOSCOW, Idaho – With four Fresno State jerseys in front of him, Mac Hopson knew better than to try to slither into the lane for a layin. So he pulled up and unleashed his usual sure-fire midrange jumper.
Hopson’s shot, like so many others for Idaho on Saturday night, rattled in and out.
Yet somehow, the Vandals’ uncharacteristic shooting woes didn’t cost them a victory in their regular-season finale. Maybe it was because Fresno State’s touch vanished along the way, too.
Down 11 points midway through the second half, Idaho used a tide-turning outburst and a strong finishing kick to race past the Bulldogs 59-56. A lively crowd of 2,679 was on hand at the Cowan Spectrum.
The Vandals (16-14, 9-7) completed an improbable third-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference after winning a combined seven league games the past three years. Their victory and Boise State’s home loss to Nevada gives UI the No. 3 seed in next week’s WAC tournament at Reno, Nev.
“That is so huge,” Hopson said after a reporter informed him Nevada was about to polish off BSU. “We got picked what? Last, right? That tells you (enough) right there. I knew from the get-go it wasn’t going to be like that.”
Hopson, a first-year Washington State transfer who has sparked the Vandals’ turnaround, was an offensive dynamo again. He erupted for 20 points and hauled in eight rebounds from his point guard post.
He and center Marvin Jefferson, who soared for three crucial blocked shots in the second half, helped UI overcome 35.7-percent shooting. The Vandals were a mere 5 of 25 (20 percent) from beyond the arc before Trevor Morris’ long 3-pointer beat the shot-clock buzzer and gave UI its first lead, 51-50, with 2:12 left.
Morris’ salvo was part of a 15-2 surge that came with Fresno State (12-20, 3-13) mired in a brutal second-half shooting slump.
After grabbing the lead, the Vandals sank 6 of 7 free throws in the final 37.5 seconds to ensure a 12-3 home record.
“I didn’t think we were going to win this game,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “I really didn’t. I thought Fresno did a really good job of disrupting our rhythm. They did a good job of making shots.
“I didn’t think we were going to get over the hump. And then once we got over the hump, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to be OK here.’ ”
Fresno State looked nothing like the WAC’s last-place team in the first half. It waltzed to a 12-point cushion on the strength on lights-out shooting from freshman Paul George, the top 3-point shooter in the WAC. He nailed a pair of 3-pointers and Sylvester Seay canned another 3 moments later to push the Bulldogs’ bulge to 33-21.
FSU knocked down 58 percent of its first-half field-goal attempts, but then made just 5 of 23 shots from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
Idaho’s victory, which Verlin bluntly termed as “ugly,” was a nice way to cap the home career of three seniors, including Morris.
“There’s been obviously ups and down during my three-year stint here,” Morris said. “To go out like this, it feels amazing, to be honest with you. … I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
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