It was everything you could possibly want in an NCAA Division I men's basketball game – starting with the second largest crowd for the 2011-12 season (3,081 fans) at the Cowan Spectrum, roaring its approval when the PA announcer welcomed the fans to the Flagship University of the State of Idaho. It got better when the Idaho Vandals played 20 minutes of some of their best basketball of the season. It got intense in the second half when the visiting Portland State Vikings used a 9-0 run to cut the Vandal lead to six points with 9:45 left in the game, only to have senior Landon Tatum snap the run with a three to keep the Vandals on top.
In a frenetic final 85 seconds, the Vandals made 10-of-12 free throws to help Tatum and fellow seniors Deremy Geiger, Djim Bandoumel and walk-on Sheridan Shane (who was on the floor at the final buzzer) close out their home career as Idaho Vandals with a 77-68 victory.
The Vandals controlled the opening tap, and a scant 23 seconds into the contest on the first offensive possession, sophomore forward Stephen Madison lofted a pass over the basket which junior Kyle Barone converted into a thundering slam dunk to set the tone for the night.
Throughout the season, a Vandal Sponsor – Jamm's Frozen Yogurt – had sponsored a promotion where any night the Vandals had five or more slam dunks everyone in attendance would get a certificate good for a price reduction. The Vandals went off in style with Barone collecting three dunks and Bandoumel two slams to meet the certificate criteria by halftime. Those shots figured prominently in the statistics as Idaho shot 19-of-28 from the floor (68%), held a 13-to-5 edge in assists, blocked two shots, had two steals, and had a 16-13 rebounding edge.
Idaho led from beginning to end. There were no ties, and the lead never changed.
The game was so action-packed it would be difficult to summarize it for those who did not attend. Instead of trying, we will provide a transcription of the post-game media conference.
Coach Don Verlin: "Wow. What a great crowd for our seniors tonight. I was extremely excited with the attendance we had tonight, and what a great way to send off three wonderful guys. I couldn’t be happier for our seniors."
Do the positives outweigh the negatives in this game? "Absolutely. We played very well in the first half…when you shoot almost 70% in the first half, you hold them to 30%, I thought we were as efficient offensively as we've been in a long time. I thought we moved the ball very well. I thought we played really well in the first half. I was hoping that we could come out and put back-to-back defensive halves together. We didn't quite as well as we needed to. They got 11 more shots than us in the second half. Maybe we lost a little focus, got a little sloppy, but I thought when they made their runs we responded to 'em and we did a good job of finding a way to finish the game. I thought Landon Tatum with the double-double (10 points, 10 assists) -- I can't remember the last time we've had a guy get a double-double with assists and points. A great night. I thought Kyle Barone was a dominating force all game long, but really in the first half. And then Stephen Madison, with the double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds). I thought we had some guys turn in some great performances tonight."
Is this the Kyle Barone you were expecting? "No question. He's a good player, and he's really come into his own especially here in the last little bit. The WAC player of the week last week, and 10-of-11 tonight, that was the third (tied for third best single game individual shooting performance in UI men's history), and I've really been happy with the way Kyle is playing."
Talk about the sequence when they cut it to six and then Deremy gets his first points with that three, and followed that with two free throws. "We got a little sloppy with the ball, turned it over a couple of times versus the press. We came back down, ran one of our staples. They took away our first option in the play. It was Djim coming underneath, and the second option was Deremy. He jumped up and knocked it down and that kinda got a little jump start going and got our lead back, got a little more comfortable at that point. I was glad to see him step up and make some shots on Senior Night. All in all I thought Portland State really battled us in the second half. I thought they did a good job pushing up their pressure. They didn’t quit. That's for sure."
Four players in double figures. Talk about the team being well rounded. "This team likes each other. This team has good team chemistry. They're a good passing team. Sometimes early in the season you didn’t see it in our assist-to-turnover ratio, but now you look at our overall assist to turnover ratio and it’s pretty good. I thought our guys did a good job making the extra pass tonight. We even missed some shots…coming out of a double team. We didn't make those shots, but I thought we did a nice job of making the extra pass tonight. Our ability to have four or five guys get in double figures should be a strength, especially going down the stretch here."
How you replace these seniors? "Anytime you lose seniors it's hard, but if you'd asked me last year how I replace Brandon Wiley, Jeff (Ledbetter) and Shawn (Henderson) I wouldn't know how to do it. And some other guys will step up. We've got some good young players in this program. No question about it. Stephen Madison, Kyle Barone are still relatively young. I like what I see from Connor Hill, and some of my JC guys; so somebody else will step in. But it's sad to see these guys go because they've done a great job this year."
When you step back and take at look the big picture of the Don Verlin program now here in year four, and you were talking about you've got some guys coming back, you've got some guys red-shirting, you've got some guys signed, are you getting really close to where you're comfortable, and the program has your signature on it now? "We're getting closer. I don't know if we're all the way there yet, but we're getting closer. I like where our program is at right now. Two of our three seniors graduate on time. Landon just needs three units, Djim will need the summer to graduate, maybe a little bit more after that, but I really like where it's at. I like the guys we've got in the program. I think we've got some youth. We were fortunate enough to sign one real good high school player, and hopefully we can continue to build."
Talk about the attitude that your kids bring in that you sign. Is that really, really important? "Absolutely. Always attitude is important, and how you fit 'em together, but you never know how it's all gonna fit together until the next year starts. You always think and you hope, but you never know how it's all gonna work out, and that's what this team has done a great job of. There was a point in this season where it would have been easy to go a different direction, especially after the tough loss, the three game losing streak at Wright State, at Green Bay and then at Boise. I thought our guys did a great job of sticking together and staying focused and fighting. What I've asked 'em all year long is 'It's easy to be with us at the start of the season. Be with us in February and March.' So far, our February has been pretty good."
You're 4-0 on senior night now, which is a game that makes a lot of coaches nervous. "You know, that's interesting. Spencer (Farrin, UI Athletics Media Relations) told me that before. I don't know if I do anything special. I really talk about it being a celebration week, because some times if you're a senior you can think about 'Well, this is my last time I'm gonna play here,' and we didn’t want it to be a funeral; so I talk a lot about them celebrating the fact that they've had great careers, and I try not to make a big deal of Senior Night to be honest with you. I just kinda treat it as another game, and I thought our seniors did a really good job of being focused and ready to play. Let's keep winning on Senior Night. That's a good thing."
Free throws in the clutch. "We missed a few there in that one stretch when they pressed up, but I thought our guys stepped up and made 'em going down the stretch. We had the right guys shooting it. What was Deremy tonight? Six for six. Kyle was five for five. Landon seven for ten. Those are all good shooters. I thought when it was time to step up we had the right guys shooting 'em.
"One thing we did do a good job of was late in the game executing our press breaker and getting the ball into Deremy where they had to foul him, and he's probably in the top ten all time in free throw percentage. He's a very good free throw shooter -- third. Third, Spencer tells me. Third all-time. He doesn't miss many free throws. We shoot a lot of free throws, when we make 100 – a couple of times a week – and many times it only takes him about 102 or 103 shots to do that. He's a pretty good free throw shooter."
This is a Bracket Buster game. What does this win mean to the team when they're looking at post-season tournaments? "I think it's big. It was big for us tonight because it allows us to have a winning season first and foremost. Portland State had been playing well. They'd won three in a row. You get a game out of conference and what all us coaches complain about is it can do you more harm than good if you lose a home game, but I think it's huge because it gives us another win. Now we've got a tall mountain to climb in these next two weeks of the season. It's huge, but if we can continue to play well, and can play well going into the WAC Tournament, you never know. But you've got to take advantage of your opportunity, and we took advantage of it tonight."
Landon, you had a nice comfortable lead and then all of a sudden, they go on a 9-0 run and you guys were in a dog fight. Did the game's complexion kinda change? "I really don’t know. They started hitting a whole lot more shots than they were hitting earlier in the game. It's almost like they tried to turn up the defensive intensity, and then we were able to match it after that and get on a little run of our own."
You each had a career high in some category or another. What was working for you guys out there? Stephen Madison: "I thought we just played smart and made the extra pass, especially when they went to zone. I felt like we just got it to the high post and just carved 'em up."
Was there any extra importance to winning this one for the seniors tonight? Kyle Barone: "Oh yeah, for sure. We wanted this one for 'em, going out on a win is better than going out on a loss for sure. We love these seniors; so it's all we could do for 'em, get a win."
Kyle, after a week layoff, was there a particular emphasis on keeping the momentum you guys had generated? "Yeah. We wanted to keep it rolling. We thought we were playing our best basketball of the year, and ever since the last game at Nevada we've been playing pretty well as a team. Coach said 'Just keep it rolling into the next game, and even next week, just keep it going.'"
Did you guys plan the little Alley Oop to start the game? (Stephen Madison, laughing). "Nah. I mean, I heard him. I heard him calling for it, and he's got help; so I just threw it up to him." Barone responded, "I tell him every day to throw it up. He's kinda scared." (Madison and Tatum break up in laughter)
Contrast the first half and the second half. You guys had to really work for it in the second half…not that you weren't working for it in the half. Landon Tatum: "We came out really hot, came out to that start, but then you knew the second half… It was a good atmosphere tonight, and they're a Big Sky team coming to play a WAC team at home. They're gonna come out hard. We knew they were gonna come out and start pressing us and try to turn the tempo up of the game. They did well right there at the beginning of the second half."
When they cut the lead to six, then Deremy, who hadn't scored all night, was really quiet, hit that three at the top of the key and then gets two free throws. That seemed to be a big moment right there. Landon Tatum: "That was a huge play in the game, because momentum was really on their side. A three pointer in any game can just be a dagger to the momentum of the game, and I think that just really helped us out to pull this one out."
They started pressing you guys kinda late in the game. Is that something you prepared for during practice? Stephen Madison: "Yeah. We prepared that all week. We knew they were gonna do that. They're quick, athletic, and a guard-oriented team." Tatum: "We kinda thought they would do it more than they did. They really do it a whole lot the first half."
Was it easier to escape that full court press than the ones that Louisiana Tech and Seattle University put on you guys? All: "At times." Barone: "Our biggest thing, I think, is just making the smart play and slowing down a little bit. A couple of times we were trying to get a layup out of a scramble situation and turned it over a couple of times there. We gave them some buckets, but if you take care of those little things we should have no problems."
How much did it help having that extra week off? Madison: "It helped a lot. We were going and going and going, playing all these games. To get a week off and prepare for that team, it helped a lot." Tatum: "Yeah. We just came out with a whole lot more energy than we had in prior games, and just to start the game off the way we did I think really helped us out and we were able to carry it on in the first half."
The way this game went, it got tight in the second half and you went on a 7-2 run when the lead was down to six, what do you guys think that says about your maturity, and how far you guys have come this year after 27 games? Barone: "We're a pretty experienced team as far as core players go; so I think we know how to close a game out now. We're smart players. We want to pass to each other; so there should be no problem at the end of games. At the end there we turned it over a couple of times, but that's just being careless. We can shore that up for the next game." Tatum: "Yeah, and I think it really helped us out as a team also having that rough stretch in the very beginning of the season, going through those ups and downs. Now, I think we're finding ways to win the close games and make sure we can pull it out." Madison: "More maturity on the team."
Landon, I'm sure it's no big deal, but is there any small amount of extra motivation when you're playing a team that has a couple of guys -- Gary Winston and Renado Parker? Tatum: "Oh, definitely, because you know they're gonna come out ready, trying to go out there and beat you. I mean, they started Gary Winston in the game instead of their leading scorer; so you just knew they were going out there just trying to beat us, and show that they could play here…so you really always want to go out and beat 'em."
You mentioned atmosphere. Did you guys like the crowd? Madison and Tatum: "Yeah, it was pretty good. It was nice tonight…3,000. Above average. It helps." Tatum: "Yeah, it was a really nice crowd. They were really loud. It was like helping out with the momentum…especially toward the end of the first half." Madison: "Once we got it going, the crowd just kept it rolling." Tatum: "I think we were able to reward 'em with jams tonight, too." Madison: "Yeah. All those dunks (everyone laughing)."
You guys have won five in a row. Now you have three pretty important road games to end the season. How nice is it to go on a positive note for those games? Tatum: "I think it's big. Even though this isn't a conference game, every win counts on your overall record. And the way we're winning right now, it's really gonna help us going into a really hostile environment like Utah State, where they really don't lose at home very often. And it's senior night (for them); so you know this win really helps us out with momentum going in there." Madison: "It's no different with Hawaii and San Jose State. It's always a tough road trip, long travel; so this is a big win for us to keep it going."