MOSCOW, Idaho – Most students were still on Thanksgiving break and the small crowd inside Memorial Gym – announced at just 906 – never got overly boisterous. But it didn’t matter Saturday night.
When it comes to playing at this quaint gym on the University of Idaho campus, the Vandals under Don Verlin almost always look comfortable.
UI blazed to a 20-point lead in the first half and fended off Montana State 76-67 in a nonconference men’s basketball game.
The Vandals (3-2) improved to 14-1 in Memorial Gym – the site of early-season games while the football team uses the Kibbie Dome – in Verlin’s four years as coach.
“We’ve been pretty good in this building,” Verlin said. “… If you want to be a good team, you’ve got to take care of your homecourt and I thought our guys came out and showed they wanted to take care of their homecourt, at least for the first half.”
The Vandals looked to be on their way to an easy win late in the first half, when they led 32-12 and Montana State was just 6 of 22 from the field. But the Bobcats (2-3) came alive during a 10-0 surge before the break.
MSU closed within eight points to start the second half on a Jamie Stewart putback. From there, though, the Vandals regained control – thanks in part to a more aggressive Kyle Barone and a big second half from Deremy Geiger.
Geiger, a senior guard, paced the Vandals with 23 points, just shy of his career high. He nailed four 3-pointers, none bigger than his long-range shot – with MSU in a zone defense for the first time – with 12:15 left to stop a small rally from the Bobcats.
Montana State hung around inside the final minute, getting within seven points twice. Yet Idaho did well enough from the free-throw line in the closing minutes – despite going 21 of 32 for the game – to keep at least a three-possession lead.
“The last three minutes, they just made a couple shots and we (had) a little mind-lapse on defense,” said Barone, who had 11 points and nine rebounds. “But we’ll take care of that the next game.”
The 6-foot-10 junior forward showcased his ballhandling skills early in the second half, driving from the top of the key to start a three-point play and get Idaho back in a groove. Barone hit 3 of 4 free throws shortly after on back-to-back possessions to give UI to a 43-31 cushion.
The Vandals, coming off an 80-75 win over Lewis-Clark State College in Boise, put an emphasis on amping up the defensive pressure against MSU. And for the first 17 minutes, Verlin couldn’t have been more pleased – the Bobcats went scoreless for nearly 7 minutes in the first half.
Hill sees playing time
Post Falls product Connor Hill, who originally was going to redshirt for UI, has played the last two games. Verlin said the Vandals needed “a hired gun” from long range, so he lifted Hill’s redshirt. The guard was 1 of 5 from the 3-point line Saturday.