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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pointing the way

Senior guard Tanoris Shepard, the first recruit of the Leonard Perry era, helped to get the Idaho Vandals back on track after they got off to a staggering start this season.
 (University of Idaho photo / The Spokesman-Review)

University of Idaho men’s basketball coach Leonard Perry often uses the phrase “when the game is on” to describe crunch time.

It’s a portion of the game in which guard Tanoris Shepard shines.

“He’s starting to emerge as a player who can make big shots and big plays when the game is on,” Perry said. “Believe me, you can have some players that are really good but when it’s on, they struggle to make plays.”

Not to put words in Perry’s mouth, but Shepard was pretty good when Idaho’s season was on. That would be back in November and early December when the Vandals were reeling and winless. Idaho drilled NAIA Great Falls, but suffered a 29-point road loss to Southern Utah the following week, leaving the fragile Vandals 1-8 entering their Big West opener against Utah State.

“As bad as it was, (Shepard) kept that team together,” Perry said. “He really did a great job in terms of making sure we were working hard in practice and keeping us together.”

Shepard used all means possible to help steer the Vandals back on course.

“The guys knew we were way better than that; we just weren’t putting it together,” Shepard said. “We did a little bit of everything. We had to light a fire under some guys to get them going. I met with the team on several occasions. The defining moment was probably the Utah State game. It wasn’t like we were just hitting shots and they were missing shots. We just played like we’re supposed to.”

The Vandals’ recovery isn’t complete, but they’ve won four of seven and they stand 3-2 in the Big West. They did everything but knock off first-place Pacific and second-place Cal State Northridge last week on the road. Idaho can grab sole possession of third place – or better – with a home sweep of UC Riverside tonight and Cal State Fullerton on Saturday.

It’s a progression that somewhat mirrors Shepard’s four years in Moscow. The first recruit of the Perry era, Shepard sat out his first season as a partial qualifier. The next year, he was averaging 12.7 points but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game. Last year, he stayed healthy and helped Idaho earn the fourth seed in the Big West tournament.

Shepard had 34 points in last week’s games to hike his scoring average to 11.7 this season. He’s shooting 47.3 percent in conference games, including 45.8 percent from 3-point range. Shepard is listed as a senior, but he’s scheduled to graduate in May, which means he’ll receive another season of eligibility by earning his degree in four years.

Shepard’s path to Moscow originated in Saginaw, Mich., where he was a basketball/football standout. He was a starting receiver and point guard on state-championship teams as a sophomore. At one point, Saginaw High’s starting quarterback was Anthony Roberson, who is averaging 26 points per SEC basketball game for the Florida Gators, with Shepard and Detroit Lion Charles Rogers at receiver. Roberson and Shepard have been friends since childhood.

“Honestly, I got my touches,” Shepard said, “but Charles was the stud. He was a 6-4 receiver.”

Shepard still gets the itch to play football and even had conversations with Vandals coach Nick Holt.

“He wanted me to come out,” Shepard said, “but my (basketball) coaches weren’t having it and I didn’t have a problem with it.”

Perry started recruiting Shepard after a tip from Lance Irvin, a former Vandal who was assisting at Loyola at the time. Shepard was being recruited as a two-sport athlete by several MAC schools, but he hadn’t passed his SAT. It turned out that Idaho assistant Mark Leslie had relatives in Saginaw, including his grandfather, who used to baby-sit Shepard’s father. It didn’t hurt that Perry knew Shepard’s AAU coach, too.

“It wasn’t that tough of a sale,” Perry said of his recruiting pitch. “I was offering playing time.”

Shepard spent his first year practicing and lifting weights, but he was unable to participate in games. It’s been a wild ride since, but he’s enjoyed every minute.

“The wins and losses haven’t been there like I wanted them to be and that’s been a big minus,” Shepard said. “But other than that, every team I’ve been on has been great. The players have been great and the coaches have got the most out of every team I’ve played on.”

He’s hoping for the same from the current team.

“We’re definitely on the rise,” Shepard said. “By the end of the year we’re going to be one of the top teams in the conference, and we’ll be right in the mix with a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. We started off sluggish, but the real key is how you finish.”

Particularly when the game, and season, is on.