SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Utes coach Jim Boylen told the media tonight’s game between his squad and Don Verlin’s Idaho Vandals was “Idaho’s Super Bowl.”
If that’s so, then give the Vandals the Lombardi Trophy right now.
With veteran stalwarts Mac Hopson and Kashif Watson mostly looking on from the bench, newcomers Steffan Johnson and Jeff Ledbetter powered the Vandals to a 94-87 season-opening victory over the defending Mountain West Conference-champion Utes in the Huntsman Center.
Playing in his first Division I game as a Vandal, Johnson took over when Hopson and Watson got in foul trouble. He scored 19 points to lead Idaho, while Ledbetter joined Hopson in pouring in 16. Every Vandal scored a bucket. It’s the first season-opening Division I win for Idaho since 2003.
“This is a huge win to start the season,” Verlin said. “We got after them today, we took them out of their sets and we made some plays when we had to.”
The revelation of the game: the play of Ledbetter, a JC transfer playing in his first Division I game. Ledbetter shot 5-for-7 from the field, including four from downtown, contributing 16 points in just 14 minutes on the court. He also swapped over to guard Marshall Henderson, the Utes’ lights-out long-range shooter, effectively neutralizing him in the game’s late stages.
“Jeff did a great job, not just as a shooter but as a defender,” Verlin said. “He came in tonight and knocked ’em down. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Ledbetter was modest about his breakout performance.
“I didn’t come out here looking just to get my shot off, but this was just my night,” Ledbetter said. “My guys got me open and I did the easy part.”
Though he rode the pine much of the second half with four fouls, Hopson came back and took control of the game in its waning moments. With 23 seconds remaining and the Vandals leading by three, Hopson took the ball around the corner in what Verlin described as a blown play.
As the shot clock was about to expire, Hopson launched a falling-away 3-pointer with a hand in his face — and hit nothing but net. He sank two free throws seconds later to ice the victory.
The Vandals’ other bench players chipped in big contributions, too. Reserve point guard Marcus Lawrence scored 7 key points and dished up a pair of assists without recording a turnover, while backup center Kyle Barone relieved the foul-burdened Marvin Jefferson, scoring 9 points and pulling down 4 rebounds.
“We never would have been able to win this game last year because we didn’t have the depth,” Verlin said. “The bench was huge.”
Despite being overmatched in the paint by the Utes’ 7-3 center David Foster and 6-11 forward Kim Tillie, the Vandals won one of Verlin’s key points for the season: the rebounding battle. Idaho outhustled Utah on the boards, 40-34, with sophomore forward Luiz Toledo leading the way for the Vandals with six.
We’ll have a complete version of this game report tomorrow, plus video interviews.