Senior guard Landon Tatum led Idaho with 14 points
SATURDAY NIGHT IN THE COWAN SPECTRUM Idaho (15-11, 7-4 WAC) was led by guards LANDON TATUM and Deremy Geiger, and center Kyle Barone, as each scored 14 points in the 73-64 win over Louisiana Tech (11-14, 3-7 WAC). Idaho's first season sweep of the Bulldogs also netted a season-high four-game win streak for UI. Up next is Idaho's home finale against Portland State on Saturday, Feb 18 (7:05pm).
Based on Idaho's 90-88 overtime win a month ago in Ruston, Louisiana, there was absolutely no way Vandal basketball coach Don Verlin was going to overlook the return battle with the Bulldogs Saturday night in the Cowan Spectrum.
The young, scrappy La Tech squad gave Idaho a wire-to-wire battle as expected, but in the end the Vandal defense stepped up and junior center Kyle Barone produced another gem in what has turned out to be a string of outstanding games to propel the Vandals to a 73-64 WAC victory.
The win was the first sweep of the Bulldogs for the Vandals, and it was also Idaho's fourth straight victory (the third in a row in WAC action). Idaho, which has played three tough home games in five days, gets a week off now before hosting Portland State next Saturday at 7:05 p.m. in a non-conference Bracket Buster game that will also serve as senior night for four Vandals.
"This one was tough," Verlin said. "Michael [White – La Tech coach] has 'em playing so hard, and you always worry about your team getting complacent when you've beaten two of the best teams in the league, Nevada on their home court, and New Mexico State. All the guys knew New Mexico State went to Utah State and won today. It's human nature to let down a little bit, but I didn't think we did that. I thought we came out right from the start and played well. I thought we played hard all night long. I thought Louisiana Tech battled like crazy in the second half. I thought it was a heck of a game. We got what I expected from Louisiana Tech. I told our guys before the game I thought they were the most improved team in the WAC this year. From where they started before WAC play started to where they're at now, I think they're the most improved team. They're not the best team, but they're the most improved team. That's for sure.
"We finally got it done," he continued. "They're quick. They put a lot of pressure on the basketball and do a lot of good things, and I thought we adjusted it a little bit as the game went. I thought we did the job late in the game breaking the press. We got some easy baskets, buy we also turned it over and gave them some easy baskets. I thought that was kinda the difference in the second half when they made their run and got ahead of us. We didn’t do a good enough job executing our press breaker, and then I thought we made the little adjustments…and were able to execute better going down the stretch. I think that enabled us to win tonight."
The Bulldog full-court press defense and scrambling offense, designed to get people open for three-pointers on the perimeter, definitely gave the Vandals fits on the night. Junior post Kyle Barone, who finished with his tenth career double-double with 14 points and a career-high-tying 15 rebounds, was tasked at times with bringing the ball up against the press. "They mixed it up a little bit more," Barone said, "but in the second half they stuck with their man-to-man press…making it tough for us to get the ball in. I think Landon [Tatum] and the guards did a good job taking care of the ball at the end there."
Tatum said, "I think it was kinda like a change of pace because they started in a 2-2-1 and then once halftime hit they just totally switched it up to a 1-2-2 and they were just pressing the whole time; so I think it kinda threw us off a little bit. But I think we got used to it towards the end of the game."
Verlin explained the Vandal changes. "We gave our guys more spacing and tried to get the ball into our point guard, and then break some guys into the middle. We were able to get it up the sideline or get it to the middle. Also we had Stephen (Madison) in the back of it to let him bring it up to get a secondary good ball handler in that back line. I was worried to death there late when he picked up his fourth (foul) and then his fifth, that thing could get away from us because he's one of our better ball handlers. That's really what we did. We just kinda spaced the floor a little more."
The Vandal defense stepped up in the game to disrupt the Bulldogs' favored outside shooting offense. In the first meeting La Tech hit 13 three-pointers, but Saturday Idaho cut that in half (down to just six total for the visitors).
"We did a great job defending the three-point shot I thought," said Verlin. "We let Cordarius Johnson (21 points) get open, and they have so many guys that can make 'em. But I thought our guys did a good job getting hands in their faces, and I thought we did a good job running (Raheem) Appleby off the three-point line a lot tonight, because he was the leading scorer coming into the game for them -- I think averaging almost 18 points a game in league. We did a very, very good job on him (zero points on eight attempts from the floor). I thought our guys did a good job on (Brandon) Gibson contesting his three-point shot. I thought we did a nice job of just really being cognizant of them shooting a lot of three-point shots and us getting hands in their faces. Even though they made six (threes) it took 'em 23 shots to do that."
Verlin was quick to point out that, in his opinion, the defense has been largely responsible for the Vandal's success in the WAC thus far. "In our last three WAC wins here," he said, "there's a common theme – (giving up) about 42% from the field and about 25% from three-point line. That's the reason why we're winning these ball games. Our defense is improving."
The Vandals put three players – Tatum, Barone and Deremy Geiger – in double figures with 14 points each. Barone's 15 boards matched his total in Ruston against the Bulldogs in January. His 13 defensive rebounds were a career high, and it was also his tenth double-double. In scoring 14, Geiger had one three-pointer to tie him with Jeff Ledbetter on the UI single-season three-point leading list, and moved him past Orlando Lightfoot on the Vandal career list. Idaho shot 54.5% from the floor, 38.5% from three-point range and 74.1% from the free-throw line.
In addition to the first sweep over Louisiana Tech in Vandal history, the win gives Idaho wins over every team in the WAC except Hawaii. "We can play with anybody in this league," Verlin said. "We can beat anybody on any given night, and I think we're gonna be a tough, tough out in the league if we can keep this momentum going. I said earlier in the year this team practices hard and at some point this season they will be pretty good, and we're getting close to that right now. We've got four very tough games on the horizon. Portland State I know will be good, but then we've got to Utah State and then we've got to go to Hawaii (and San Jose State)."