RENO, Nev. – The Idaho Vandals were excited about coming to the WAC men’s basketball tournament, and with good reason.
Idaho entered the tournament opener having won six of its last seven games, the only blemish being a road loss to San Jose State.
The Vandals’ excitement turned into disappointment after dropping a 70-62 decision to sixth-seeded Louisiana Tech in the quarterfinals Thursday night at Lawlor Events Center.
Idaho concludes its season at 16-15 under first-year coach Don Verlin, its best finish since 1998-99.
This one wasn’t decided until the closing minutes, as Tech’s Magnum Rolle made four free throws down the stretch and Kyle Gibson, who scored 23 points, knocked down four, too.
“You have to give Tech all the credit,” Verlin said. “They did a great job with their game plan. Obviously they outrebounded us (27-21). The thing that impressed me the most was how well they shot the basketball: 54 percent from the field, 66 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent at the line.
“This basketball team has come a million miles. I’m just ecstatic how this basketball team played this year. They showed a lot of heart and a lot of courage.”
Idaho trailed by four at the half, and just four minutes into the second half Tech went on a 13-3 surge for a 50-38 lead. Trevor Morris’ 3-pointer was the only score in that stretch.
Tech’s Olu Ashaolu knocked down two free throws and two buckets, including a nice drive down the lane, to lead Tech’s surge.
“The first half was kind of slow and I had a couple of fouls,” Ashaolu said.
“In the second half, I just wanted to play hard and rebound. Idaho has some good size, and they made it hard for me.”
The Vandals could have folded, but didn’t.
Idaho outscored Tech 17-10 over the next eight minutes, cutting the lead to 60-55 with 3:27 remaining. Mac Hopson had four of his 16 points and Morris bombed in a 3-pointer.
The Vandals never got closer than five points the rest of the way, as Tech did just well enough at the line to get by.
The first half featured four ties and two lead changes, as the teams were never separated by more than six points.
Louisiana Tech, on the strength of 14 points by Kyle Gibson and 10 by Brandon Gibson, and 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbed a 31-27 lead at the break.
Kyle Gibson went 5 for 6 from the field, including 4 for 5 from beyond the 3-point arc. Brandon Gibson, no relation, chipped in 10 points. The duo combined to go 9 of 11 from the floor and combined for 24 of the Bulldogs’ 31 points.
Verlin said one key was the Vandals’ inability to take advantage of Rolle’s foul problems in the first half. The Tech center was limited to four minutes after picking up three fouls.
“They went small and were driving around us at times,” Verlin said. “We had to switch our ball screen defense. In a weird way it made it harder (to defend).”
Another problem was that Luciano de Souza played just 10 minutes and fouled out. He picked up his third right before the half, and Verlin said he may have made a mistake letting him stay in.
Nevada 78, San Jose St. 69: Freshman Luke Babbitt scored 11 of his game-high 30 points in the first 5 minutes of the second half to lead the second-seeded Wolf Pack (20-11) over the seventh-seeded Spartans (13-17).
Utah St. 85, Fresno St. 68: Stavon Williams scored 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting from 3-point range and the top-seeded Aggies (28-4) raced to an early lead on the way to a victory over the ninth-seeded Bulldogs (13-21).
Gary Wilkinson and Jared Quayle each added 18 for the Aggies, who already have clinched a berth in at least the NIT because they won the WAC regular-season title. They will play in today’s semifinal against New Mexico State, which beat Boise State 80-70.
New Mexico St. 80, Boise St. 70: Jonathan Gibson scored 22 points and Jahmar Young and Hernst Laroche each had 16 to lead the fifth-seeded Aggies (17-14) past the fourth-seeded Broncos (19-12).
Wendell McKines added 12 points and 13 rebounds for the fifth-seeded Aggies.
Mark Sanchez had 25 points and 12 rebounds and Anthony Thomas had 18 points for the fourth-seeded Broncos.
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