Despite foregoing an opportunity to christen ICCU Arena with its first 100-point game, Idaho was stellar in virtually every other aspect in defeating South Dakota State 98-84 Wednesday night.
With less than a minute to play, Philip Pepple grabbed a defensive rebound and fired a long pass to Rashad Smith. Behind the Jackrabbits defense, and with nothing but hardwood between him and the basket, Smith took a couple of exuberant steps toward the goal then stopped and elected to dribble out the remaining shot clock. SDSU got off one more attempt, a miss, before the game concluded.
“There’s a right way to win,” Smith said, acknowledging he was echoing what Vandals coach Zac Claus has told his team. Slamming home an unnecessary basket to score 100 points, “is like showboating a little. It’s disrespectful,” Smith said.
Claus might have influenced Smith’s decision.
“I think he heard me before he saw me,” Claus admitted of his sideline demeanor as Smith began his solo break.
Idaho, 2-7 overall, doubled its win total from last season with the victory. The Jackrabbits slipped to 8-3. They will remain in the Inland Northwest and will play against Washington State at noon Saturday at the Spokane Arena.
For the Vandals, who did so much right, it was a pick-your-hero kind of game.
Like scoring? Mikey Dixon put up a career-high 35 points. He was perfect at the free-throw line, 16 of 16, and was 7 of 9 from the floor, including 5 of 7 on 3-pointers, where his quickness and step-back accuracy were effective. The Jackrabbits tried myriad defensive combinations against him to no avail.
“I’m just in that mode right now,” he said. “My teammates were getting the ball to me where I like it.”
In Idaho’s offense, “everything was flowing,” Dixon said. “As a team, everybody was doing their job. Everybody played their part.”
Smith’s 16 points included a dozen in the first half when the Vandals and Jackrabbits battled back and forth, never separated by more than seven points. Idaho emerged with a 43-41 halftime lead.
Smith’s scoring was highlighted by an explosive baseline drive against SDSU’s Baylor Scheierman and by a pair of 3-pointers.
He also led Idaho in rebounding with seven.
Defensive dominance your thing? Pepple came off the bench and blocked three shots.
“We need him on the back line to change and alter shots,” Claus said.
Along with Tanner Christensen and Smith, Pepple and the Vandals interior defense made SDSU work for everything inside. It was reflected in the Jackrabbits’ 29-of-68 shooting from the floor. At only 6-foot-4, Smith was often shadowing taller players, like the 6-6 Scheierman, 6-8 Luke Appel and 6-7 Aaron Fiegen.
“Rashad is as good a defender as we have,” Claus said. “He has the ability to guard 1 through 5.”
The Jackrabbits managed to convert only 8 of 21 3-point attempts.
“We wanted to take away as many quality looks on 3s as we could,” Claus said. “They are as good a shooting and passing team as we are going to play this year.”
The Jackrabbits’ scoring was balanced. They were led by Scheierman’s 22 points. Noah Freidel and Douglas Wilson each followed with 15, Appel added 13, and Charles Easley scored 11 points.
The Vandals finally took control in the final seven minutes. With Idaho leading by only four, 78-74, Dixon buried one of his 3s plus a foul shot. Christensen, 6-11, went to the floor to recover a loose ball and then scored in the paint against Matt Dentlinger. It was the kind of good fortune Idaho has seldom seen recently, and it put the Vandals up 84-74. For the first time in the game, they looked like they could win, and SDSU began to feel the pressure and started launching long 3s that consistently fell short.
The win might have marked a coming of age for Idaho, according to Smith.
“We’re kind of like a new team. To jell, it took a couple of games. But I think we put our foot in the ground,” he said.
Claus added the win was the product of a week’s worth of good practices, both before and after a frustrating 81-75 loss to Southern Utah on Saturday.
With the luxury of something it never had in last year’s one-win season – momentum – Claus plans to keep the intensity stoked as Idaho looks ahead to a road game at Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday.
“We’re going to keep being hard on them (Thursday in practice),” he said.
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