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Vandals enter WAC tournament on hot streak

Thu., March 8, 2012

MOSCOW, Idaho – Over five days in early February, Idaho did more than send a message to the WAC by beating the conference’s two best teams. It also set in motion a stretch of quality basketball that carried the team through the regular season.

The question now is can the Vandals – for the first time since joining the conference in 2005 – make a lasting impression in the WAC tournament?

Idaho, 18-12 and seeded third, rattled off wins in seven of its last eight games entering today’s quarterfinal matchup with sixth-seeded Hawaii (15-15). The teams meet at noon at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena, just a week after UI clobbered the Warriors in Honolulu.

“What we’ve got to make sure we do is bring our best basketball to Las Vegas,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “That’s kind of what I’m challenging our guys with this week is we’ve got to bring our game.

“It’s time to do it in Las Vegas in March.”

The Vandals are 1-6 all time in the WAC tournament, the only victory coming in a play-in game over San Jose State in 2007. They have yet to reach the semifinals, but this is clearly their best chance.

Hawaii has lost five straight while Idaho – in part because of wins over conference champion Nevada and second-place New Mexico State – finished with its best conference win percentage (.643) since 1998-99.

The Vandals lead the WAC in field-goal shooting and 3-point shooting, ranking near the top 20 nationally in both categories. They’re 11-4 since Jan. 5, and they have wins over every WAC school this season.

Idaho is the only conference member to achieve that feat outside of the Wolf Pack, who went 13-1 in WAC play.

“We have the ability to beat anybody in this league,” Verlin said. “We have the ability to win this tournament. … I think it gives us a lot of confidence.”

With the postseason approaching, Idaho center Kyle Barone sensed a different mindset among his teammates than in previous years. He’s been with the program for four years – longer than any current player – and he’s watched as a redshirt or played in each of UI’s three opening-round WAC tourney losses under Verlin.

This time, Barone said, the Vandals have enough veterans to know what to expect in Las Vegas.

“I think our confidence level as a team is pretty high right now,” the junior said. “It’s just how we’re playing, and everybody is just comfortable right now. I think that’s important this time of year and going into this tournament.”

Idaho split the season series with Hawaii, with each team winning on the other’s home court. One of UH’s main offensive threats is guard Zane Johnson, who at 6-foot-6 is 7 inches taller than UI starting guards Deremy Geiger and Landon Tatum.

To better match up with Johnson last week, Verlin used 6-2 Mike McChristian off the bench for 23 minutes. The junior college transfer, who scarcely played earlier in the year, responded with a career-high nine rebounds and three steals.

“Yes, he hasn’t gotten very many minutes,” Verlin said of McChristian. “But the minutes he’s gotten recently, he’s played really well.”

The winner of the Idaho-UH quarterfinal advances to meet New Mexico State or Fresno State at 6 p.m. Friday. The Vandals last made the NCAA tournament in 1990.

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