Sometimes coaches throw out several combinations of players to find a crew that works together.
Last year, Idaho women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. He decided that he would stick with that group as they learned, sometimes through failure, how to play with each other.
Slowly, as close loss after close loss piled up, their confidence grew until those young players turned those losses into wins as they made a run through the Western Athletic Conference tournament and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
That same crew is a year older and this time is running roughshod over the WAC. Idaho (15-7) has raced to an 8-0 record and a two-game lead through the first half of conference play.
“I made a commitment, I’m going to play these guys,” Newlee said of his young team last year. “I decided that I would take my lumps early with them and know that it will make them better down the road. I don’t want to trade spots with anybody right now.”
Idaho went 17-16 overall and 11-7 in the WAC last season before winning three straight conference tournament games. The Vandals then got crushed 105-37 by No. 1 seed Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.
“The lopsided loss didn’t really bring us down. They (UConn) did that to everybody,” Newlee said. “In the spring, following the loss to UConn, they just came in every day and were determined to work as hard as they could without me prodding them all the time.”
With all five starters returning this year, Idaho added Karlee Wilson, a 5-4 point guard from Lewiston, and 6-1 post player Brooke Reilly of Mt. Spokane. Both freshmen are averaging more than 15 minutes a game.
“That got everyone more excited knowing that we had more depth than we ever had,” he said.
Behind the scoring power of junior Stacey Barr (17.1 points), senior Alyssa Charlston (15.1 points) and sophomore Christina Salvatore (10 points), the Vandals played Gonzaga tough in a 64-56 loss. Idaho also dropped close games to nationally ranked California and San Diego before starting its unblemished run in the WAC.
It’s also the first time the Vandals have won eight straight since starting 10-0 in the 1985-86 season.
Idaho fields the top three rebounders of all four area Division I schools in Barr (7.6), Ali Forde (7.4) and Charlston (7.2). Not far behind is Salvatore, who averages 5.2.
“Ali Forde is a great, individual rebounder. We are continually harping that we have to have five on the glass,” Newlee said. “We haven’t had the size advantage in just about every game. We were just outworking people.”
Five of Idaho’s eight conference wins have come on the road. And conversely, the Vandals will have five of their last six games in Moscow to finish league play.
Kelly Graves, head coach of No. 20 Gonzaga, spent part of Tuesday watching former Gonzaga men’s assistant Leon Rice go through practice with the Boise State men’s team.
Graves loves sitting and watching how other coaches organize their practices to ensure they cram as much teaching as possible in a limited amount of time.
“Almost everything I’ve run, I’ve stolen from somebody,” Graves said. “You change a little here and a little there and it becomes your own.”
Most of what Graves runs came from Gary Colson, who guided several programs, including Pepperdine and New Mexico, to a total of 563 career wins between 1959 and 1995. Graves played a year under Colson and served one year as a graduate assistant under him at New Mexico.
“He and Jerry West are best friends,” Graves said of Colson. “He’s also in that group with (former NBA coach) Hubie Brown, (former Auburn coach) Sonny Smith … longtime coaches who were really successful. I have been fortunate to have an audience with those coaches.
Graves also constantly bounces ideas off men’s assistant coach Jerry Krause, coach Mark Few and former Eastern Washington and Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti, now head coach at Drake.
“I ran stuff by him almost every day,” Graves said of Giacoletti. “He was great about sharing ideas.”
Washington State (12-10, 6-4) ended a three-game losing streak with a close 79-75 win Friday over USC. The Cougars then lost Sunday to UCLA.
And it doesn’t get any easier this week as Pac-12 leading No. 3 Stanford (21-0, 10-0) comes to Friel Court for a 6 p.m. Friday game.
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