RENO, Nev. — Idaho coach Jon Newlee clutched his head in his hands and turned back to his bench in disbelief, as he watched his team’s Western Athletic Conference title hopes expire with the game clock. In a WAC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against the Utah State Aggies, the undersized, outmanned Idaho Vandals had seemingly used up their magic. Idaho fell to the Aggies in overtime, 59-58, in the Lawlor Events Center.
The fourth-seeded Vandals (13-15, 10-6 WAC) led by as many as 9 late in the second half, on the strength of a stellar performance from guard Derisa Taleni. The 5-9 junior guard was nigh unstoppable, as she scored a game-high 24 points on 9-15 shooting, pulled in 8 rebounds and grabbed 4 steals. But guard Rachele Kloke fouled out with just two minutes to play, and as she sat down, the air seemed to come out of Idaho’s offense. The fifth-seeded Aggies (16-14, 9-7 WAC) took a one-point lead on a 3-pointer from Chelsea Burns with 43 seconds to go, and only a clutch free throw from Taleni tied the game to force overtime. But critically, Taleni missed her first freebie, which could have sealed the win for Idaho.
Vandal guard Alana Curtis drew first blood in the extra minutes with a beautiful layup off a feed from post Yinka Olorunnife. From there, however, the Aggies scored seven unanswered points to take the lead for good. Idaho had a chance to make a winning bucket with five seconds to play, but point guard Charlotte Otero’s jumper was short — and cut short the Vandals’ postseason trip.
“We had our chances to win and they had their chances,” Newlee said. “Once again it came down to not making free throws like we needed to. Shooting 10 for 17 at the line is not going to win you post-season games, and that’s all there is to it. To give them credit, I thought they hit some big threes in the second half to kill our lead and that was the difference in the game.”
In the first half, the Vandals struggled mightily on the glass, giving up an enormous 23-9 rebounding advantage to the Aggies. Olorunnife, in particular, couldn’t find her rhythm in the opening period, as the team’s leading rebounder pulled down just one board. Utah State’s failure to take care of the ball, however, kept Idaho in the contest — the Vandals scored 12 points off of 14 Aggie turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes, with Utah State managing just 4 points on 6 Idaho turnovers. A strong Vandal post defense kept the Aggies from capitalizing on many of their 12 defensive rebounds, as Utah State seemed befuddled at times when looking for lanes to drive.
Idaho also suffered from shooting woes in the opening period, as only Taleni and Curtis were able to make more than one bucket and overall, the team shot just 10-26 from the field. Again, Olorunnife’s struggles stand out, as she was an ugly 1-8 in the half. With 11 points on 5-8 shooting in the first half, Taleni almost single-handedly kept the Vandals in the game.
“In the first half, it was a struggle rebounding for us on the offensive and defensive ends,” Taleni said. “Coach told us in the locker room that keeping (the Aggies) off the boards was our key to win. We’re such a small team but if we put a body on somebody, we can get any board. We figured it out in the second half but the first half just killed us.”
Out of the locker room, Idaho crashed the boards with fervor, doubling up the Aggies on the glass, 28-14. Olorunnife responded to the call, grabbing 10 boards in the period. She finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, recording her eleventh double-double of the season.
“It was very hard playing down inside against a girl as big as Lydia (Whitehead), but regardless of height, we can and should be boxing out,” Olorunnife said. “As Derisa said, I think we failed to get a body on everyone in the first half.”
Newlee termed the team’s improvement too little, too late. In a tournament, one-and-done situation, he said, no team can afford to play a flat first half. Not only was he dismayed at the rebounding trouble, he noted a number of blown layups that could have given the Vandals the margin of victory.
“We couldn’t finish in the first half — we’d go up to the rim and just not attack. We just missed a ton of layups,” Newlee said. “I told them in the locker room, it doesn’t come down to the last play. We lost this game in the first half, not at the end or in overtime. It shouldn’t have been that close.”
The one bright spot for the Vandals: the entire starting five return next season, with the addition of much-needed depth at every position. Idaho has run a six-player rotation all season. Otero, in particular, has had to play virtually every minute of every game. She’s been on the floor for 1,091 of the team’s 1,095 minutes — an NCAA-leading 99.63 percent. Taleni is looking forward to a little on-court relief, and to her second season under Newlee’s guidance.”
“We have a great corps of girls coming in that we know of, and we’re probably going to get more,” the junior guard said. “I think we proved to a lot of teams that this is a totally different Vandal team. Our coaching staff knows what they’re doing and we have a lot of dedicated girls putting in the hard work. Next year will be big for us, so don’t count us out.”
Newlee, who was honored as the WAC’s 2008-09 Coach of the Year for leading the Vandals’ dramatic turnaround, wasn’t ready to think of the future just yet.
“It was just a tough ending for us, and a tough ending to the season,” he said.