MOSCOW, Idaho – For six weeks, the Idaho men’s basketball team wandered. Pushed out of its usual home so the football team could prep for the Humanitarian Bowl, the Vandals were relegated to ancient Memorial Gym.
By the time they got back to Cowan Spectrum in early January, something was amiss. Losses started mounting, and breaks didn’t materialize no matter where UI was playing
But Thursday night, the Vandals finally had something to feel good about again in a 74-59 rout of Fresno State.
Chalk it up as a bonus that the breakthrough happened in Moscow.
Idaho tossed aside a six-game Western Athletic Conference slide and collected its first win of the season at Cowan Spectrum with a crowd of 1,301 on hand. The long-sought-after triumph comes as UI (9-10, 2-6) plays six of its next eight games on the road.
“It feels great,” said forward Luiz Toledo, who had 16 points. “We’ve been having a bit of adversity this month. We’ve been having a rough month. We’ve just been trying to stay focused.”
Remaining on task wasn’t easy after Monday’s stunning loss to Boise State. The Vandals “had their hearts ripped out” – as coach Don Verlin put it – when Anthony Thomas’ 3 splashed through the net as the buzzer went off, sending the game into OT.
But Idaho was markedly sharper against FSU, which was without star Paul George (ankle). The Vandals had just 11 turnovers against 21 for the Bulldogs (11-11, 4-4) and shot 68 percent in the second half.
The offensive efficiency was keyed by superb passing, particularly into the interior. UI’s 44 points in the paint were a season high and four players reached double figures, led by Mac Hopson (21 points, six assists, two turnovers).
Verlin took special encouragement from the club’s stronger play as the game progressed. During the losing streak that extended through most of January, UI remained close in league contests only to fade in crucial moments.
“We made some free throws. We took care of the ball. And for whatever reason, the boys were locked in,” Verlin said in explaining the difference.
A critical sequence came in the final seconds of the first half. Six-foot-10 Marvin Jefferson intercepted a misguided Fresno pass near midcourt and dashed to the paint with a defender chasing him.
Before the clock expired, Jefferson flushed a two-handed dunk and sent UI into the break with a 32-30 advantage. The nimble steal and slam set the stage for an 8-2 UI surge to open the second half – and seemed to signal that the Vandals were bound for a bit of good fortune after their prolonged funk.
“It was just like any other game pretty much,” Hopson said. “It just went in our favor today. The last six games we’ve lost (it) just felt we couldn’t catch any breaks for some reason. … So what we did was we stuck together, didn’t hang our heads down and we’re going to keep on fighting from here on out.”
Hopson went on to say he hopes “Vandal Nation (has) got our back. It sounds like they don’t.”
The senior guard was referring to the sparse crowd, the smallest of the three-game homestand.
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