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Young Vandals never gave up

Idaho coach Jon Newlee starts three freshmen. (Associated Press)
Idaho coach Jon Newlee starts three freshmen. (Associated Press)

The Idaho Vandals could have folded the tent after a conference-opening loss dropped their overall record to 3-9 on Dec. 29.

Instead, the Vandals are packing their bags for a cross-country trip.

Relying on a starting roster of three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior, Idaho (17-15) won 14 of its last 20 games, including three straight at the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Vegas, to qualify for its first NCAA women’s basketball tournament since 1985.

The 16th-seeded Vandals will meet host and top seed Connecticut (29-4) at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

Although Idaho coach Jon Newlee always believed in his team, he sometimes wondered during the roller-coaster regular season if the Vandals might still be a year away from dreaming about the postseason.

Newlee started seeing the positive signs even before the WAC season. Idaho gave Colorado, which ended up a fifth seed in the NCAA tournament, a run for its money in Boulder, and won games at UC Irvine and UC Riverside.

“That was the springboard that launched us,” Newlee said of the California sweep.

Every two steps forward produced one step back. Road sweeps at Denver and New Mexico State in early January and at Texas State and Texas San Antonio in late January were followed by a 31-point drubbing at Utah State, but Idaho stayed near the top of the WAC.

“I liked our chances on a neutral court in Vegas,” Newlee said.

Six of Idaho’s final eight games were decided by three points or less, including a buzzer-beating loss to Seattle, the team the Vandals defeated in the WAC tourney final. The Vandals won five of their final six games.

“I’ve told them we’ve been in these (close) games all year and some of the bounces are going to start going our way,” Newlee said.

Now that Idaho has made the tourney, Newlee wants his players to remember that next year isn’t a given, despite a starting lineup that could return intact.

“I want them to understand it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Newlee said. “I want them to enjoy the moment … savor the moment. Go out and play free and play hard.”