|Idaho opens WAC play with gritty win|
HONOLULU, Hawai'i - Idaho used efficient offense in the first half and tough defense in the second to hold off Hawai'i in the both teams' Western Athletic Conference opener at the Stan Sheriff Center on Saturday night by a 59-52 score.
Idaho (8-4, 1-0 WAC) shot 56.0 percent and raced out to a 36-25 halftime lead, but when the offense hit a rut in the second half, the defense stiffened and held Hawai'i (7-7, 0-1 WAC) to 27 points in the period and didn't allow the Warriors any breathing room.
"That's the best defensive performance we've had since I've been here, as far as sitting down and guarding somebody man-for-man," Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. "All night long, we had very few game-prep errors and we fought like crazy."
Senior guard Mac Hopson led all scorers with a season-high 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting, along with five rebounds and two assists. Fellow senior Steffan Johnson had 10 points and a career-high seven rebounds, as well as three assists.
The Vandals effectively took UH's top scoring threats out of the game and limited the Warriors' open looks all night long. Idaho held leading scorer Dwain Williams to five points on 1-of-10 shooting, while second-leading scorer Roderick Flemings went just 3-of-7 from the floor with 10 points. The two had entered the game averaging 30.6 points per game between them.
"I thought Kashif Watson did a great job on Roderick Flemings and I thought Steffan Johnson did a good job on Dwain Williams," Verlin said.
Idaho hit 47.6 percent from the floor and 43.8 percent from 3-point range in the game, and held Hawai'i to 36.7 percent overall and just 12.5 percent from long range. UH held its previous opponents to a WAC-best 30.7 percent clip from the 3-point line. Hawai'i out-rebounded Idaho by a 35-29 margin, while the teams sported identical totals of 10 assists and 13 turnovers.
"It was a great road win," Verlin said. "The thing I was most happy about was that when we've hit a little adversity this year, I don't think we've quite responded as a team and tonight, when adversity hit, we just buckled down and played."
Idaho opened the game on a 6-0 run, then closed out the first half on a 10-2 run that included a Johnson buzzer-beater from 3-point range to end the period.
The Warriors came back in the second half and took advantage of early Idaho shooting woes to steadily grind away at the Vandal lead, which reached as many as 14 points at the 16:30 mark. With its lead whittled down to as little as three points on three occasions with less than six minutes to play, Idaho responded by hitting clutch shots and free throws to keep UH at bay.
After opening WAC play 1-0 for the second year in a row, Idaho will now head to San Jose State, where the Vandals will take on the Spartans at 7:05 p.m. (PST). SJSU was the lone WAC team that was idle on Saturday.
"We've got a great chance to get a leg up on everybody else in the league if we can go down to San Jose and play with the kind of intensity, the spirit, and the togetherness that we played with tonight," Verlin said.