MOSCOW, Idaho – When Idaho’s Connor Hill came off a hard screen from Joe Kammerer and contorted his body to get set for the biggest shot of the game, Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari noticed something.
“He literally wasn’t even looking at the hoop when he started to jump,” Molinari said.
Hill’s eyes, though, were locked in on the basket after releasing the 3-point attempt with a little more than a minute left. And he let out a yelp after vaulting the Vandals to a lead they wouldn’t surrender in a season-opening 67-63 men’s basketball victory over the Leathernecks on Saturday night.
Hill, a junior from Post Falls, saved his first 3-pointer – and only field goal of the game – for the most opportune moment. Utah transfer Glen Dean followed with four free throws, and Stephen Madison put the game away with a pair of freebies with 4.4 seconds left.
A lively crowd of 1,326 at Memorial Gym watched the Vandals win their first-ever meeting with WIU, a team from Macomb, Ill., that won 22 games last year and shared the Summit League regular-season crown.
“It was a great final few minutes,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “To come out of here with a win is awesome for this young team.”
The Vandals have 12 first-year players, including three freshmen who saw action Saturday night. But the team’s two returning starters, Hill and Madison, provided a steady hand in the closing minutes.
Madison, a fourth-year senior, was masterful with 21 points, a career-best 14 rebounds and five assists. He connected on 4 of 6 shots from long range and showed no hesitation on his last trip to the line.
“We made our foul shots and we grinded hard on defense,” Madison said. “I think that was the key. We stepped up and made big shots when (we had to) and got the outcome we wanted.”
Dean, a former Eastern Washington standout, tallied 15 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the foul line in his Idaho debut. He had just two assists, but Verlin and Molinari credited him for guiding Idaho’s offense at point guard.
“He really did a good job of running the show,” Molinari said.
The Vandals also received solid contributions from Paulin Mpawe and Bira Seck, two newcomers in the post. Mpawe put in nine points, six of which came early in the second half when UI surged to a 10-point lead, while Seck finished with eight points.