In their season opener at home, the Vandals were downed by poor shooting and spotty defense, in an 80-57 loss to Gonzaga.
“Let’s go Vandals” was the cheer which emanated from the mouths of every member of the Vandal band and audience in Memorial Gym as Idaho won the jump ball to start the game. As customary, the band kept cheering until a Vandal player scored the first point for their team.
For two and a half long minutes the band cheered.
Idaho’s slow start set the tone early, and in the end their inability to connect shots buried them.
Consider this: The Vandals shot an anemic 27 percent from the court over the course of the game. The Vandals didn’t fare much better at the free-throw line, clocking in at 47 percent.
“That’s the worst that a team I’ve coached has shot from the free-throw line — ever,” Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. “We even shot 300 extra free throws this week, so I don’t know.”
The Vandals managed to lead the game only twice, early in the first half. By the mid-point of the game, however, their advantage had been buried by the blitzing transitional play of the Bulldogs. Idaho didn’t register a point for an 11-minute stretch during the first half, and trailed 32-22 at halftime, a deficit they would never recover.
“I thought we came out, competed, and played pretty good,” Newlee said. “But we missed 13 lay-ups that we charted on the bench, and it just deflates a team when you don’t make lay-ups — those cost us.”
The Vandals played improved defense, Newlee said, but were no match for Gonzaga’s play under the basket. The Vandals never found their groove in rebounding, allowing Gonzaga recover time after time.
“The lack of our box-out really hurt us,” Newlee said. “We got into a jumping contest with them, and obviously we are going to lose that — they are big, athletic and talented physically.”
Idaho went on a brief hot streak at the start of the second to pull within 7 points, but the offense sputtered again, going over six minutes without scoring during which time Gonzaga piled on 15 points, which put the game out of reach for the Vandals.
Newlee said despite the loss, he felt the defense was hugely improved over the previous week’s game.
“I liked our defense tonight, and I thought that we did a good job of getting out to people,” Newlee said. “We lost their shooters in transition, though.”
Idaho’s aggressive defense showed through with 16 fouls, but Newlee said many of the fouls were on second-chance opportunities coming off of the rebounds, a statistic he would like to see lowered. Newlee said there was still room for improvement, but was overall pleased with the pressure on the defensive side of the ball.
The Vandals have two days to retool and find a cure for their offensive woes before traveling up north to face Eastern Washington on Thursday. Newlee will look for more depth from his bench; The Vandals played only seven players against Gonzaga, but Newlee said there is talent to be had on the bench.
“As soon as some other kids on the bench pick it up in practice and can help us, that will really help our depth,” Newlee said. “I want to go at least eight or nine deep, at least in stretches, but we are not able to do it right now because our guys in practice are not showing that they are ready to get on the floor.”
Newlee said it was a tough test to play against Gonzaga, but a challenge that he and the team relished. The flaws exposed will need to be address, but Newlee is fully confident the team will come out strong against Eastern Washington.
“There is no question that team (Gonzaga) will win the West Coast Conference, they will be in the NCAA Tournament, and they will be in the second round, if not the Sweet 16,” Newlee said. “Playing a team like this… man, these guys and Baylor will the best teams we play in the pre-WAC season.”