|Women grit out defensive victory|
MOSCOW - It wasn't pretty, and at times it was downright ugly, but the Idaho women's basketball team used scrappy defense and a big-time scoring run to take down UC Santa Barbara by a 47-40 margin on Monday at Memorial Gym.
Idaho (2-11) missed its first 20 attempts from the field and fell behind 16-1 before junior Rachele Kloke finally broke the curse with a 3-pointer at the 7:43 mark. UC Santa Barbara (3-8) couldn't take advantage of Idaho's poor shooting, because the Gauchos couldn't hang on to the ball.
Vandal defenders stepped into passing lanes, pressured the ball and closed down shooters all night long, and the result was 19 first-half turnovers by UCSB and 29 total for the game.
"What kept us in it was defense," Idaho head coach Jon Newlee said. "We did a great job of getting down on their big kid (Mekia Valentine) and taking away some of their other weapons.
"I thought we really kept our focus and our intensity on every possession, and that hasn't happened for us consistently."
Valentine, the team's second-leading scorer on the season at 13.9 points per game, hit just two of her eight attempts and turned the ball over 10 times. Idaho shut down the inside game, but UCSB couldn't make the Vandals pay from the outside, as it hit just three of its 15 attempts from 3-point range.
Despite their early offensive woes, the Vandals closed out the half on an 11-4 run to go into the break trailing by a 20-12 margin and gained some momentum in the process.
"We just battled, and when we finally got some shots to drop, I think we really took some momentum into halftime," Newlee said. "As bad as we were playing offensively, we were still down only eight, and that's what we told them at the half."
After UCSB stretched its lead to 12 points at 29-17 with 14:35 left in the game, Idaho finally found its rhythm and rattled off 19 unanswered points to go up 36-29 at the 7:22 mark. The key during the run was balance, as five different Idaho players scored during the run, and they hit from all areas of the floor.
"We were sharing the ball and we were making the extra pass during that run," Newlee said. "It wasn't just one person carrying us. Everybody was contributing at that point, and that's what we need."
The Gauchos put on the pressure in the final seven minutes of the game, but the Vandal defense didn't buckle and Idaho hit eight of its final 10 free throws on the other end to seal the deal.
"Knowing how to put a team away, get ahead, make the big comeback and stay ahead by taking care of the ball, taking good shots and making free throws, it's going to do great things for us as we get into WAC play," Newlee said.
Junior guard Bianca Cheever led the team with 11 points, while Shaena Kuehu and Charlotte Otero dropped in nine apiece, and Kloke and Yinka Olorunnife both scored seven. UCSB's Emilie Johnson had a game-high 14 points, as well as 11 rebounds, but only four other Gauchos scored a point in the game.
As a team, Idaho ended up shooting .219 from the floor, but hit 40 percent of its second-half shots. UCSB went 17-of-52 from the floor for a 32.7 clip, but its 29 turnovers resulted in 17 Idaho points. The Vandals turned the ball over 13 times, but the Gauchos only converted that into four points. UCSB held a 51-40 rebounding edge, blocked seven shots to Idaho's two, but Idaho nabbed 10 steals while UC Santa Barbara had just two.
Idaho will now have a 12-day hiatus before opening Western Athletic Conference play with a home game against Fresno State on Jan. 9. Newlee said the team will go back to "Basketball 101" for the first few practices to reinforce the little things before settling in and getting prepared for its WAC run. Last year, Idaho went 3-9 in non-conference action before sparking to a 10-6 conference record and third-place finish.