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Vandals cash in during CIT opener

MOSCOW, Idaho – Don Verlin wouldn’t say he felt pressure to win Wednesday night. But after the Idaho athletic department wrote a $31,500 check to host a postseason game, the Vandals’ coach wanted to make the experience worthwhile.

So it was no surprise to see Verlin, in the moments following UI’s 86-83 victory over UC Santa Barbara, exhale deeply and offer a brief smile in the media room.

This win meant a lot.

“It shows a real commitment to our basketball program,” he said of paying to host the Vandals’ tournament opener. “And I was very, very happy that we were able to deliver a win for them.”

Idaho withstood a momentous rally from the Gauchos, who came back from 17 points down to edge within a point with 1:24 left. Stephen Madison responded with a turnaround basket in the lane and two free throws on the next possession to help clinch the victory in front of 1,203 at Cowan Spectrum.

The Vandals, at 19-13, have won the most games in a season since 1992-1993, when Larry Eustachy was coach. They’ll go for win No. 20 at Utah State on Saturday night at 6.

The Aggies (18-15) beat Cal State Bakersfield in Logan on Wednesday and will host their second straight CIT game.

“It feels great,” point guard Landon Tatum said. “You always want to keep on winning, especially in the postseason.”

UCSB (20-11) got 25 points from James Nunnally and 19 from Orlando Johnson, the Big West’s leading scorer. Nunnally poured in 20 points in the second half, but his 3-point attempt to tie the game inside the 10-second mark faded wide right.

Tatum swished two free throws with 5.8 seconds on the clock and the Vandals had their second CIT home win in four seasons under Verlin. They beat Drake in 2009 before bowing out in the second round at Pacific.

This time, the Vandals are one of 16 teams remaining in the field.

“I really wanted to make sure our team played well and they competed hard and did the things they needed to do to win that game,” Verlin said. “And I thought we did. I thought we had our best offensive game in sometime.”

The Vandals pumped out their most points at home this year, and their five turnovers were the fewest since 2005. Madison helped lead the effort with a career-high 20 points, while Deremy Geiger had 22 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the 3-point line.

Tatum also sparkled in his final home game with 10 assists and no turnovers.

But UCSB shot 62 percent in the second half and ramped up its defense in the final 12 minutes. It went on a 17-6 run to get within 74-72 before Kyle Barone scored five straight points for UI.

“Too much ground to make up,” Gauchos coach Bob Williams said. “You just can’t get engaged for the last 11 minutes, 12 minutes of the game and expect to come back on a good team at their house.”