LAS VEGAS – After doing just about everything right to dig out of a nine-point deficit in the second half, the Idaho Vandals did just everything wrong with the outcome hanging in the balance.
No. 4 Idaho committed five late turnovers, one of those leading to a breakaway layup that gave San Jose State the lead for good and the eight-seeded Spartans went on to post a 74-68 victory in the WAC men’s basketball tournament quarterfinals Thursday at the Orleans Arena.
Shortly after the frustrating loss, Idaho (18-13) learned that it will play in the postseason for the second time in three years under head coach Don Verlin. The Vandals, who finished tied for third in the WAC, will visit San Francisco, third in the WCC, at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Idaho was 1-1 in the event two years ago.
The Vandals gave up 13 3-pointers, 12 to the guard tandem of Adrian Oliver and Keith Shamburger, who combined for 56 points. Justin Graham, the third member of the backcourt, added seven points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals, a couple of key thefts in the closing minutes.
Idaho’s clumsy finish was in contrast to a cleanly played, entertaining first 38 minutes.
“What a game,” Verlin said. “They make 13 3s and we were the best 3-point percentage defense in the conference, but today we weren’t. That was the difference. Oliver and Shamburger were really hard to guard.”
The Vandals clawed back from a 61-52 deficit to pull even at 68 on Deremy Geiger’s basket from close range. UI’s Shawn Henderson forced Oliver into taking a tough 3-pointer that was off target.
The game-changer came on an inbound pass, a designed lob to 6-foot-10 sophomore Kyle Barone that Graham diagnosed and knocked the ball away. As the ball rolled toward the speedy Shamburger, Graham walled off Barone, the only Vandal with a chance to catch Shamburger, who raced in for a layup.
On Idaho’s next possession, Barone’s pass was intercepted by Shamburger. After an exchange of missed shots, Idaho was forced to foul and Shamburger made two free throws to put San Jose State up by four with 31.3 seconds left. Another inbound pass, designed with the intent of getting Jeff Ledbetter a 3-point attempt in transition, didn’t come off as planned and Graham made another steal.
Oliver’s two free throws sealed it for San Jose State (17-14), which faces No. 1 Utah State in the semifinals tonight.
“I’m in charge of how this team plays and I made some bad calls,” Verlin said. “We didn’t execute maybe the way we’d like to, but those possessions fall on me.”
Idaho committed just three turnovers in the first half and led by as many as six before settling for a 36-34 edge. Brandon Wiley, who was 5 of 5 from the field, connected from five feet to give Idaho its last lead, 45-44, early in the second half. Oliver, who connected several times despite being tightly defended, made two 3s and a baseline jumper as SJSU led 61-52.
“Coach sets it up in practice where one of our players is face-guarding me,” said Oliver, No. 3 nationally at 24.5 points per game. “With a hand in my face, I look beyond that at the back of the rim, just like my grandfather taught me.”
The Vandals worked the ball inside against the Spartans’ zone, piling up a 32-12 edge in points in the paint. Ledbetter supplied the perimeter offense with five 3s and a team-high 21 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the late miscues and San Jose State’s season-high 13 3s.
“It’s tough, especially when you’re right in their face and they still make it,” Ledbetter said. “They deserve the credit for making them when it counts. I don’t like being on the other end of it.”