MOSCOW, Idaho — The final moments of a game at long last this season had gone Idaho’s way, and coach Don Verlin felt no need to dodge what could have been the major story line.
The Vandals panicked, he said. They led Fresno State by five points with 2 minutes, 50 seconds remaining. And they started to let their nerves get to them.
“I’m not going to tell you we didn’t,” Verlin said after Idaho’s 63-59 victory Saturday over the Bulldogs. “I guess if you lost, you would call it choked but we panicked a little bit. There’s no question about it.”
Mercifully for the Vandals, sophomore Stephen Madison and junior college transfer Mansa Habeeb played like poised veterans in the last two possessions of the WAC contest.
Madison followed Deremy Geiger’s 3-point miss with a layin off the backboard with 5.8 seconds left to snap a 59-59 tie. Habeeb then contested a would-be 3-point attempt from Fresno State’s Jonathan Wills, who never released the ball and was called for traveling after his feet left the floor and he came back down.
Bulldogs first-year coach Rodney Terry thought Wills’ apparent shot with 1.9 seconds left was tipped. But Habeeb said he didn’t touch the ball, and Verlin said it looked to be an up-and-down traveling violation.
Habeeb finished the game with two free throws, helping the 1,303 fans at Cowan Spectrum forget about the wobbly ballhandling and questionable decisions from the Vandals (8-8, 1-1) in the last 3 minutes.
The nerve-jangling win ended a four-game slide for Idaho, which finally broke through after going winless in four games in December that were decided in the final possession.
“It wasn’t perfect at the end by any means,” Verlin said. “When you’ve lost four in a row, you’ve lost a ton of close games in a year, sometimes getting that first one is really, really difficult. And it was difficult tonight.”
It wasn’t just the pressure-induced sloppiness that made this one tricky for UI. Kyle Barone, its top big man, was in foul trouble throughout, and the Bulldogs’ small lineup presented matchup issues.
With Barone on the floor for only 18 minutes, 6-foot-8 senior Djim Bandoumel gave the Vandals a lift. The Quebec product poured in a career-high 16 points while blocking three shots.
Bandoumel, a 59-percent free-throw shooter, was also 6-of-6 from the line. His surprising effort was part of the Vandals’ 22-of-25 day at the stripe, and each foul shot loomed large near the end.
The Vandals led by seven points with 7:11 left after Bandoumel connected on a falling-way 19-foot jumper at the end of the shot clock – a make he called lucky. But Fresno State answered with two 3s from Steven Shepp, and UI soon started showing signs of jitters when FSU kicked in full-court pressure.
“I was on the bench and I was going crazy,” Bandoumel said of the final minutes. “I think we’re capable to play any press. It’s just to stay poised and make the right decisions.”