LAS VEGAS – With the most important game of the season on the horizon, forgive the Idaho Vandals for taking some time before focusing on the upcoming contest. After all, they just won the program’s biggest game in decades.
Don Verlin’s fifth-seeded Vandals upset No. 1 seed Utah Valley 74-69 in the school’s first Western Athletic Conference semifinal appearance since 2007 to advance to the championship game of a conference tournament for the first time since 1993.
“You’ve got to celebrate a little bit after the game and be happy, and keep emotions high and confidence high,” said senior Stephen Madison said before returning to a raucous locker room.
Verlin, whose teams had never made it past the WAC quarterfinals in any of his five years as coach prior to Thursday’s win over Kansas City, has a chance to win a championship and punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament in the school’s final year as a member of the conference. UI (16-17) will play in the Big Sky Conference beginning next season.
The Vandals trailed for the first 46 seconds against the team that beat them by a combined six points in their two regular-season matchups. Then Mike Scott hit a 3-pointer, Madison tacked on two more 3s, and the Vandals took a lead that they would maintain.
Scott scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, giving way in the second to Connor Hill, who had 10 of his 12 points after halftime.
“When it comes down to it you’ve just got to make plays,” Madison said. “You know, we didn’t make plays those first two games so this game they just fell for us and it felt good.”
Madison, whom UVU coach Dick Hunsaker said is “going to be a wealthy professional somewhere,” led all scorers with 25 points despite playing with three fouls throughout the second half. The senior also became the second-leading scorer in Vandals history with 1,607. Orlando Lightfoot scored 2,102.
The Vandals built their lead to 10 points with just 9:37 left to play, but the Wolverines (20-11) had one more run in them to make it a two-point game less than 2 minutes later. A pair of superlative dunks by USU freshman Zach Nelson – who went 4 of 4 in the second half thanks to some timely backdoor cuts – energized the bench.
The partisan UVU crowd sensed another late victory for the Wolverines, who continued to threaten until the final buzzer, but the Vandals refused to trail.
“That was kind of our game plan was, to make sure we were playing it outside and make them make some backdoor cuts,” Verlin said. “But they were running their inside screening game or what we call power game.”
The Wolverines briefly tied the game early in the second half when Holton Hunsaker – the coach’s son – hit a free throw to erase UI’s razor-thin 30-29 halftime lead. But Madison and Hill each hit 3s to regain a comfortable buffer.
Part of UVU’s inability to take the lead stemmed from the Vandals’ superb shot defense. The Wolverines made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in their quarterfinal win over Texas-Pan American on Thursday but made just 4 of 19 against UI.
“We played our zone a little differently than we had in the past, we played it outside-in tonight and our guys did a great job flying to shooters,” Verlin said.
“I thought our ball-screen defense was superb tonight and what we really did was we challenged all those shots and kind of got them off the rhythm.”
With wins in six of their last seven games there is little doubt that the Vandals are playing their best ball of the year, if not the last six years. The win was also UI’s 15th of the year against Division I competition, triggering a rollover clause in the coach’s contract that adds one season.
“We’re coming together great right at the end and that’s what we worked through all year,” Madison said.
“Every day get better, that’s what coach has been telling us, and I think our team chemistry has come together and we’re starting to play good as a unit and that’s showing on the court.”
New Mexico State 69, Cal State Bakersfield 63: Daniel Mullings had 21 points on night to lead the second-seeded Aggies (25-9) over the sixth-seeded Roadrunners (13-19).
DK Eldridge added 17 points for the Aggies, who rallied from a 35-26 halftime deficit. They first closed the gap at 43-43 on a Mullings layup with 12:29 left and never trailed after a Mullings 3-pointer made it a 52-50 NMSU lead with 7:08 to go.
Bakersfield (13-19) tied the game at 56 with 3:55 to play, but the Aggies followed with nine straight points and made their final four free throws to seal the win. Issiah Grayson had 33 points, six rebounds and five 3-pointers to lead the way for the Roadrunners.