LAS VEGAS — In college basketball not every custom and ritual is good and the Idaho Vandals couldn’t be happier about ending their annual tradition of first-round exits in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
The fifth-seeded Vandals (15-17, 7-9 WAC) knocked off fourth-seeded Kansas City on Thursday, 73-70, for the school’s first conference tournament win since the 2006-07 season. It was also the first WAC quarterfinals win of coach Don Verlin’s career.
“That feels awful good,” Verlin said after the game. “(Senior Stephen Madison) and I enjoyed a special moment because we hadn’t got one yet and it was good to get one.”
Madison led all scorers with 26 points and shot a perfect 11 of 11 at the free throw line. The UMKC band – placed almost directly behind the basket – hounded the senior throughout the game with seemingly nonsensical chants such as “Giant Steve Blake.”
But the comparisons to the Golden State point guard only served to highlight Madison’s play as he connected on three of five 3-point attempts.
“It always feels good to silence the crowd,” Madison said. “We were there last week and they were doing the same thing so we’re used to it.”
After the game Verlin said that Madison – a five-time WAC Player of the Week – should have won the conference’s Player of the Year award, rather than New Mexico State’s Daniel Mullings. UMKC coach Kareem Richardson concurred.
The Vandals nearly extended their streak of early exits when UMKC went on a late run that lead to chants of “Meltdown City” from the Kangaroos fans. With 2:14 left to play UI led 68-60 but after UMKC’s Martez Harrison hit a pair of free throws the Kangaroos entered a full-court press, flustering UI’s Glen Dean who threw an errant pass that sailed out of bounds.
Martez hit a jumper seconds later and after Madison was called for a charge on the ensuing Vandals possession. Martez neglected teammate Nelson Kirksey’s plea for “one more pass!” and hoisted a contested 3-pointer that sailed through the hoop, cutting UI’s lead to 68-67 with 1:23 left in the game.
But a Madison layup and free throws from Dean and Wiggs kept the Kangaroos at bay until the clock ran out.
UMKC attempted four more shots than UI and outshot the Vandals 48 percent to 41.3 percent. But UI made 27 of 36 free throws while its opponent attempted just 24. Eight of the first nine fouls called in the second half were on the Kangaroos, drawing Richardson’s ire.
“Any time I look up there and I see 8-1 I have an issue with it but obviously the officials are going to call what they see,” he said. “It makes it a little bit tough, especially with our style of play. It takes our aggressiveness away with our press and things so it kind of makes you have to reassess what you’re doing defensively and takes us out of our game a little bit.”
But it was Verlin whose frustration with the officials boiled over, and early on. Just 1:56 into the game Verlin was issued a technical foul for arguing with a ref over an out of bounds call on the opposite end of the court.
“I thought there were two calls that didn’t go our way right from the get-go. And as hard as our guys worked that crew needed to be on their game and I’m not sure they were,” he explained.