RENO— The Idaho Vandals’ magic turnaround season came to an abrupt end this evening. Backed by Kyle Gibson’s 23 points, the sixth-seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs defeated the third-seeded Vandals, 70-62, in a Western Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinal matchup in the Lawlor Events Center.
Throughout the game, Idaho could not seem to find an answer to the Bulldogs, either on offense or defense. Louisiana Tech, 15-17 (6-10 WAC), took the lead halfway through the first half on Kyle Gibson’s third 3-pointer of the period and never looked back. Thereafter, the closest the Vandals would manage to get was two points. Idaho finished its first season under coach Don Verlin with a 16-15 record, 9-7 in the WAC.
“You have to give Louisiana Tech all the credit tonight,” Verlin said. “They did a great job with their game plan and they did an outstanding job of countering everything we had.”
Mac Hopson finished with 16 points, 8 assists and no turnovers to lead the Vandals, but he was just 4-11 from the floor and 0-3 from beyond the arc. Marvin Jefferson added 15 points inside, but Idaho’s big man came up with only four rebounds.
After Tech big man Magnum Rolle picked up a pair of fouls in the first four minutes, the Bulldogs switched things up offensively, and the Vandals were caught flat-footed. Louisiana Tech’s guards started shooting the lights out, going 7-10 from beyond the arc in the first half. On the game, Kyle Gibson shot 4-6 from downtown, Jamel Guyton was 2-for-2 and Brandon Gibson went 2-of-3.
“(Tech) went small, used their quickness and drove around us,” Verlin said. “We had to switch up our ball-screen defense and in a weird way, I think it was an advantage for them to have Rolle in foul trouble because it made them harder for us to guard.”
In the second half, Rolle came off the bench and contributed 9 points, along with several key rebounds that Verlin identified as game-changers.
“When we’d get close, (Rolle) would come up with a big basket or a big rebound. He made plays when they needed them,” Verlin said.
With 16 minutes left in the game, Hopson, a junior point guard, pulled down a big offensive board and nailed a quick jumper to pull Idaho within two points, 37-35. But Brandon Wiley caught a foul on the ensuing Tech possession, and that sparked a 9-0 Bulldog run in the next three minutes. Olu Ashaolu drained both free throws and a missed Hopson jumper turned into a Guyton 3-pointer. Idaho turned the ball over seconds later and Ashaolu converted the fast-break layup. Two more free throws from Guyton made it a 46-35 contest, and the Vandals’ best shot at a comeback had been thwarted.
A slew of Vandal fouls gave Louisiana Tech 25 free-throw opportunities in the second half, and the Bulldogs converted on 20 of them.
The one-and-done playoff performance left the Vandals feeling as if they have some unfinished business for the 2009-10 season.
“I’m excited about next year,” Hopson said. “You know, I don’t really want to talk about next year now because we just lost, but I’m excited. We have a good coaching staff behind us and I feel like (Verlin) should have got coach of the year. I love playing for them, I play my heart out for them every night and I can’t wait until next year.”
This year, the Vandals captured nine conference wins — two more than Idaho had earned in its previous three WAC seasons combined. Its 16-15 record is the first winning record for the school in a decade, and the Vandals’ season sweep of downstate rival Boise State was also the first in 10 years. Jefferson, a junior forward, referred to those achievements as giving Idaho a benchmark for the future.
“We did some things that not a lot of Idaho teams have done in a long time,” Jefferson said. “We all accomplished something great, even if it didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
Verlin, too, acknowledged his team’s superb turnaround effort and the potential shown for more success in the coming seasons.
“This basketball team we have at Idaho came a million miles this year,” Verlin said. “If you’d have told us at the start of the season that, with 11 new players, we’d get 16 wins and finish third in the WAC, we’d have all took it. We’ve set a nice foundation for years to come.”