Optimism became contagious for the Vandal men’s basketball team late in the second half, but a second half surge wasn’t enough to save No. 3 Idaho from crashing out if its second consecutive WAC Tournament, falling to No. 6 Hawaii 72-70 in the first round.
A Zane Johnson-less Warrior team faced further despair midway through the second half when second-leading scorer Joston Thomas earned a technical foul and fouled out of the game. Only minutes later, coach Gib Arnold drew the team’s second technical, helping Idaho take a seven-point lead, its largest of the game.
But it was a Warrior team that made all the right plays at all the right rimes. Johnson’s replacement, freshman Shaquille Stokes, netted a crucial three-point shot to tie the game at 64-64 with three minutes to play.
“Obviously losing Zane was a big deal and I just felt good about this team, I felt like they deserved it,” Hawaii coach Gib Arnold said. “We’ve been a team that’s battled, we’ve been a team that’s done some really good things this year… We’ve struggled the past three weeks and the team and the university needed it.”
At 68-68 and with less than one minute remaining, Vander Joaquim stole an offensive rebound away from the Vandals, tipping it back in to earn a two-point lead. Kyle Barone’s lay in on the other end set the score level once more but Hawaii’s Hauns Brereton knocked down a baseline jumper, leaving the Vandals three seconds to pull out a miracle. Stephen Madison’s inbounds pass fell into the hands of Joaquim and the Warriors had every right to celebrate their first conference tournament victory since 2005.
“We made a couple of tough decisions but that’s basketball and it came down to a one-possession game,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “I thought they did things they usually do to stop our run and get themselves back in, Stokes hit a big three.”
At the helm for four years now, Verlin has experienced his fair share of tournament woes.
“It was a tough one, there’s no question about it,” Verlin said. “You’ve got to give Hawaii credit, the way they played down the stretch, Vander Joaquim had a couple key rebounds down the stretch there… I couldn’t be prouder of our team; I thought we played extremely hard.”
Idaho’s offensive success was limited in the first half, when the Vandals shot a dismal 34 percent from the field and 12 percent from three-point range. Both teams concluded the game shooting 44 percent from the field.
Stokes played Johnson’s role almost to perfection and the Harlem native, who didn’t log one minute against the Vandals in Moscow earlier this season, tallied 17 points Thursday.
Arnold praised the play of his two guards.
“I mean you’ve got two point guards who have combined for 12 and 1 (12 assists, one turnover), you’re going to be in every game and we’ve kind of seen that translate, which is nice,” he said.
It was Brereton who was the Warriors’ surprise hero though. In addition to his game-winning jumper, the junior forward was 6 of 8 from the field and also finished with 17 points. Brereton averaged just seven points-per-game during the regular season.
The dominant inside play of Joaquim and Barone, the conference’s top two centers, caused 42 fouls between the teams. Joaquim’s double-double saw him drop 20 points and grab 13 rebounds while Barone added 19 points. Senior forward Djim Bandoumel snatched a career-high 16 rebounds.
Idaho’s chances at a postseason tournament, likely the CIT or CBI, are high and will be announced as early as Sunday.
The Warriors will advance to the semifinals and play the winner of No. 2 New Mexico State and No. 7 Fresno State.