MOSCOW, Idaho – This is the current state of Idaho basketball: Elation and frustration are running neck-and-neck.
With 4 minutes to go in the first half against Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday, Idaho coach Don Verlin was still looking for a reliable combination of players from among six freshmen, four sophomores, a junior college transfer and a returning junior that would allow the Vandals to assert themselves on offense and defense.
Down by 11 points, Idaho went on an 11-4 run, cutting the lead to three points at the break, 38-35.
The Vandals knocked that down to a single point when Trevon Allen scored on a fast break to open the second half, and Idaho forced the Mavericks into empty possessions on their first three trips down the floor. But over the next 10 minutes UNO rebuilt its entire lead, eventually pushing it to as much as 18 points, before the Vandals rallied again and got within five points in the final minute before falling 89-80.
“It’s just a process a young team goes through,” Verlin said. “We’ve got to figure which units are going to be most productive on both sides of the ball.”
Allen, a junior, represents the majority of Idaho’s veteran presence. He led the Vandals with 15 points and eight rebounds.
He seconded Verlin’s analysis: “We’re trying to figure out a good group to get out there. We finally started to get a little groove. It’s just finding combinations. We have so many new guys. But this is going to push us to the next level, for sure.”
Idaho’s 18 turnovers – split almost evenly between the halves at 10 and eight, respectively – immediately caught Verlin’s critical eye. “(The Mavericks) went on two big runs that were basically started by our inability to take care of the ball,” he said.
He noted the Mavericks hit 8 of 14 3-point attempts in the second half: “That’s good shooting.”
Verlin also said UNO is better than its record (4-7). He pointed out that included losses to Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa State, Arizona State, Seattle and Oregon.
Idaho slipped to 3-7.
The early part of the game was hardly a thing of beauty. Both teams tried to establish a perimeter game, but neither was getting shots in rhythm. There was no real attempt to control the game with speed or physical play.
Marquell Fraser tried to provide energy for the Vandals and was active on the court, but it wasn’t matched by production until the second half, when he got hot and scored nine of his 14 points.
Jared Rodriguez is usually a starter. Against UNO, he came off the bench for Idaho as a “penalty,” Verlin said, for getting ejected from the Vandals’ previous game with California State Bakersfield following a brief scuffle.
Rodriguez gave Idaho a boost late in the first half, hitting a 3-pointer and jumping out on defense to double the ball on a possession where the Vandals got a stop. He was even more valuable in the second half. He hit two more shots from beyond the arc, finished with 12 points and four rebounds, and continued to provide determined defense in his nearly 18 minutes of playing time.
Sophomore Geno West is settling in with his increasing opportunities as Idaho’s point guard, a role he shares with Allen. West gave the Vandals 14 points and a pair of assists. Freshman guard RayQuawndis Mitchell connected on 3 of 6 3-point attempts and a free throw for the Vandals.
But while Idaho could nip at the Mavericks’ heels, it could not overtake them. It had no good answer for UNO’s accurate perimeter shooters, especially in the second half when UNO generated offense off Vandal mistakes.
Mitch Hahn led all scorers with 21 points, including 4 of 8 3-pointers. K.J. Robinson went an impressive 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in scoring 12 points. After dropping in a pair back-to-back to give the Mavericks an 18-point lead, Robinson briefly skipped about the court with an index finger raised high and a grin on his face. J.T. Gibson’s 15 points included a pair of 3s.
Matt Pile and Ayo Akinwole also scored in double figures for the Mavericks with 13 points apiece.
The Vandals, who have dropped three straight games this month, finish their nonconference season at Santa Clara on Friday. They open Big Sky Conference play at home with Idaho State Dec. 29, Weber State Dec. 31 and Eastern Washington Jan. 3.
Heading into this series, their veteran Allen offered the watchword of struggling, young teams.
“No one wants to lose,” he said. “The biggest thing is we’ve got to grow from it.”
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