Idaho’s star guards Mac Hopson and Steffan Johnson combined for just 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting in Idaho’s home opener tonight against Sacramento State. The Vandals must have lost, right?
It was a night for Idaho’s unheralded guys to shine, as Luiz Toledo led four Vandals in double figures to claim a 75-61 victory over the Hornets in Memorial Gym — giving the 3-1 Vandals their best start in nearly a decade.
Toledo’s 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting paced the Vandals, and the sophomore big man converted on seven of his eight free-throw opportunities. Kashif Watson and Marvin Jefferson each poured in 12 more, while long-ball specialist Luciano de Souza canned a three-pack of 3-pointers to finish with 11.
“This basketball team is deep – we’ve got a number of weapons and a number of guys who can score the basketball for us,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “That’s something you’re going to see all season.”
The Vandals dominated the post with uncontested buckets all night long, as Idaho’s three big men — Jefferson, Toledo and Kyle Barone — combined to shoot 10-of-14 from the field.
“When we got the ball inside, we scored,” Verlin said. “I thought Toledo and Marvin were big factors for us early on.”
Idaho never trailed and was rarely threatened, jumping out to a 11-2 lead three minutes into the game and never allowing Sacramento State (3-3) to get closer than two possessions the rest of the way. Every Hornet run was answered right back with a Vandal run.
“We did a good job of slowing down their momentum and making shots of our own,” Verlin said. “Luciano buried a couple threes that shut (the Hornets) down and broke things open.”
Hopson and Johnson weren’t entirely absent from the offense, of course, and it was their ball-handling that made many of those points possible. Mac finished with 6 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, while Steffan scored 9 points, dished up 4 assists and grabbed 5 boards. Six of Johnson’s points came on back-to-back 3-pointers early in the game, which helped the Vandals take control of the contest.
“Mac always does everything to win,” Verlin said. “He does whatever it takes, finds a way to help his team and makes good things happen.”
Watson made just three of his seven field goal attempts, but got the foul call seven times, sinking six free throws. He also grabbed 7 rebounds and dished up 3 assists.
“They came out ready to play, but we’re at home and we wanted this one,” Watson said. “We were prepared, every set they had we knew exactly what they were running and how to counter it.”
Watson said the Vandals’ depth brings energy and confidence into the team, as every player knows they can play a key role in any game — whether they’re starting and playing 30 minutes or coming off the bench for 10.
Once again, Idaho’s defense stifled its opponent, as the Hornets were held to just 36 percent shooting on the night, while the Vandals held a 42-38 rebounding edge. Sacramento State guard Sultan Toles-Bey led all scorers with 16 points, but he connected on just 6 of his 18 shots and went 0-for-4 from downtown. For the game, the Hornets shot an abysmal 26 percent beyond the arc. Only the inspired play of forward Michael Selling (15 points on 7-14 shooting, 5 rebounds) kept the visitors in the game.
The game got sloppy in the second half for both teams, as the Vandals went from 52 to 37 percent shooting — while the Hornets dropped from 41 to 31 percent. Verlin said he needs to work with his team on the mental side of the game, remembering that today’s game was only the fourth of the new season.
“This team is young, it’s early in the season and we’ve got some stuff to clean up still,” Verlin said. “I need to figure out combinations and we still have to learn to concentrate for a longer period of time. We’re off to a good start.”
The Vandals’ first homestand continues Saturday against a regional Big Sky foe, as Eastern Washington makes the short trip from Cheney, Wash. to Moscow for an evening game after Idaho’s football finale. Tip-off against the 2-3 Eagles is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.