In a season where Idaho has struggled to make free throws and hang onto the ball, tonight at home against Utah State the Vandals did both of those tasks quite well. The Vandals converted on 14 of 17 attempts from the charity stripe and gave up just six turnovers all night.
But in the second half, it was the shooting-the-ball-into-the-hoop thing the Vandals couldn’t quite get the hang of.
Bewildered by the Aggies’ lockdown zone defense, Idaho converted on just four of 22 shots from the floor in the second period — scoring a season-low 18 points in those 20 minutes. Those aren’t the kind of numbers that will get it done against Stew Morrill’s Utah State squad, and they didn’t. The Vandals took their fifth straight Western Athletic Conference loss, falling to the Aggies in the Cowan Spectrum, 60-48.
“We got two holes plugged and some others busted tonight,” coach Don Verlin said, with a frustrated chuckle. “I made some personnel changes to get us to be more efficient and I thought we were at times, but then we don’t rebound or shoot as well as we have been. We just have to keep grinding. It’s the only thing I know to do.”
Early on, the game looked like it would become a punch-for-punch slugfest. The Vandals (8-9, 1-5 WAC) struggled to find consistent offense, as Utah State (15-6, 5-2 WAC) stifled point guard Mac Hopson’s game early. But Idaho’s Steffan Johnson and Kashif Watson joined together to pick up the slack with cut-and-slash drives and high-percentage shooting. Hopson recognized his situation and cleanly moved the ball out of the traps, dishing up five assists for just one turnover — one of his best ball-movement nights of the season.
But in the paint, it was all blue. The Aggies’ interior combo of Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall and Brady Jardine appeared to be unstoppable all night long, exploiting holes in the defense and tearing through the paint at will. Utah State owned a 35-23 rebounding edge in the game.
“They outphysicaled us, tonight they just beat us in the trenches,” Verlin said. “Wesley and Bendall and Jardine, they kicked our tail on the boards and in the paint and it was about that simple.”
Idaho center Marvin Jefferson had a solid night numbers-wise, scoring 9 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. But the Vandals’ starting power forward, Luiz Toledo, was effectively shut down off the glass, managing just two boards on the night.
The Vandals also looked out of sorts when defending sharpshooter Jared Quayle, who was left wide-open on several rotations and double-team attempts. The result? Quayle canned four of his eight 3-point attempts en route to a team-leading 16 points.
Idaho trailed, 35-30, at the halftime break, but coming out of the locker room the Vandals made a push to get back in the driver’s seat. Hopson scored four points in the first two minutes as the Vandals twice cut the lead to one possession in that stretch.
But Idaho would not score again for nearly four minutes — missing four straight shots, while the Aggies sank three layups and a pair of free throws.
“The way they played the zone, they wouldn’t let us penetrate,” Watson, who led the Vandals with 16 points, said. “They clogged the lanes and played us real tight.”
Immediately after Hopson broke the drought, Quayle would drain a dagger trey to give the Aggies a 12-point lead with 13 minutes to play. The Vandals’ upset hopes were over.
“We had it down to a three-point game, we got a good stop, but we didn’t get a couple key blockouts and they capitalized on those plays,” Verlin said. “This is not the lower level part of the league. These guys are efficient and good and they’re coached by a guy who’s got 500 wins.”
Yes, that coaching milestone was reached tonight by Morrill, Utah State’s head honcho — who Verlin served as an assistant for nearly 15 years.
“Hell no,” was Verlin’s sardonic reply when asked if he’d wanted to make that piece of history for his former mentor.
“It’s tough,” Watson said. “We didn’t envision our team being where we are right now. All we can do is work and try to get better and turn things around.”
The Vandals have just one day to regroup before facing a nationally-televised battle royale on Monday with the downstate rival Broncos of Boise State University. That game, tipping off at 8 p.m. on ESPNU, is perhaps the most must-win event of what has become a disappointing sophomore season for Verlin’s Vandals. Last year, Idaho swept Boise State for the first time in a decade, and anything less than another sweep would be yet another backslide.
“They’re coming in desperate for a win, as we are too, and it’s always a good game when Boise and Idaho get together,” Verlin said. “It’s not only a big game for us in terms of our season but in terms of our rivalry too. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had an edge on them and hopefully we can continue that.”