RENO, Nev. — After five years of futility, an Idaho Vandals basketball team finally made it to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals — just two wins away from a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for Idaho’s women, after a decisive quarterfinal win over New Mexico State on Wednesday, they ran headlong into the WAC’s hottest team, and the improbable dream was over.
The fourth-seeded Vandals fell to No. 1 seed Fresno State, 80-66, ending a season that saw Idaho’s women endure a two-win non-conference campaign before coming together for a historic trip deeper into the WAC Tournament than any Idaho team has ever gone. Idaho finished the season with an 11-20 record, 8-8 in conference play. The Bulldogs advanced to the tournament championship, where they’ll play Louisiana Tech tomorrow at 1 p.m.
Idaho coach Jon Newlee credited Fresno State with taking the fight right at the Vandals, but considers the season a success for the way his team responded to the adversity it faced early on. Last year’s leading scorer Derisa Taleni was lost to a season-ending injury in preseason practice, and her absence was a big reason the team suffered 11 non-conference losses, including a six-game losing streak.
“After a really bad start to the year, to fight back the way we did, to finish fourth in the WAC and get the first ever WAC Tournament win for this team, it’s tremendous for our program,” Newlee said. “Fresno State is an extremely talented basketball team that will go a couple rounds in the NCAA Tournament if they get the right draw.”
But Newlee had harsh words for the game’s referees, who he said were biased against his squad.
“Today was probably one of the most horrendous, one-sided jobs of officiating that I’ve been involved in, and I’ve been involved in a lot of postseason tournaments in my 22 years,” Newlee said. “It was absolutely horrible, and I’m embarrassed for our league, embarrassed for our kids that we had to go and be subjected to that. Fresno State doesn’t need any help, they’re good enough on their own. It was just bad officiating and I’m not happy about it.”
Shortly after the postgame press conference, Newlee was publicly reprimanded by WAC commissioner Karl Benson for violating the league’s sportsmanship code.