|Basketball outlasts Runnin' Utes in season opener|
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Idaho opened its season on a high note Friday evening, as the Vandal men went into the Huntsman Center and took away a 94-87 victory over reigning Mountain West Conference champion Utah.
During the preseason, one of Idaho head coach Don Verlin's main talking points with the Vandal team was depth, and it definitely showed in the team's first outing of the year.
"A lot of adversity went on in that game - we had our best player, Mac Hopson, in foul trouble and we had Marvin Jefferson in foul trouble," Verlin said. "We never would have been able to win this game last year, because we didn't have the depth."
Of the team's 94 points, 43 came from bench players. Idaho's highest bench output of the 2008-09 season was 33 points in a home win over UC-Irvine.
Junior guard Jeff Ledbetter, who was 4-of-6 from beyond the 3-point arc, dropped in 16 off the bench. Another Idaho newcomer, senior Steffan Johnson, led the scoring charge with 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting, while also adding three assists and three steals.
While newcomers showed their stuff, it was a familiar face that provided the biggest basket of the night. With 23 seconds remaining and Idaho leading 89-86, senior guard Mac Hopson hit an off-balance, shot-clock-beating long ball to give the Vandals a 92-86 lead. He then calmly sank two free throws at the 12-second mark to put the game out of reach.
Idaho shot .492 (31-63) from the field, including an impressive 10-of-21 (.476) from 3-point range. The Vandals also hit 22 of their 33 free throw attempts for a decent .667 percentage. Utah also shot well from the field at .485 (32-66), but hit just .333 (9-27) from long range and made eight fewer free throws (14) than the Vandals.
One big key for Idaho against the much taller Runnin' Ute lineup was rebounding, and the Vandals held their own. Idaho used a balanced effort to outrebound Utah by a 40-34 margin. Sophomore Luiz Toledo, another impact newcomer, led the team with six boards, while Hopson and junior Shawn Henderson added five each.
The win gives the Vandals their first win at Utah, and their first victory over the Utes since a 44-38 decision at Twin Falls, Idaho, on Dec. 27, 1938.
Idaho used a pair of strong runs to establish control in the game. At the 12:33 mark of the first half, Ledbetter nailed a deep shot to give Idaho an 18-16 lead. After a layup by Utah's Carlon Brown, the Vandals rattled off 10 unanswered points to take a 28-18 lead at the 10:02 mark.
Utah would close the lead down to 28-27 at the 7:18 mark in the half, but a 7-0 Idaho run over the next minute, which included two 3-pointers by Johnson, gave the Vandals a 35-27 lead. Idaho would maintain its lead and go into the half leading, 47-41.
After Utah took a 66-65 lead at 11:06 in the second, its first in nearly 21 minutes, Ledbetter keyed another big Idaho run, as he scored eight points in a 10-0 Idaho run that gave the Vandals a 75-66 lead with 9:18 remaining.
The resilient Utes would come back to tie it at 81-81 with 5:32 remaining, but a steady dose of Hopson, who scored nine of the team's final 13 points, put the game away for the Vandals.
Idaho will stay on the road and travel to Houston, Texas, for a Sunday matchup against Texas Southern, which opened its season with an 89-70 loss at UTEP on Friday.
"A huge win for us and a huge win for the (Western Athletic Conference)," Verlin said of Friday's game. "Now we've got to get greedy and we've got to go do the best we can at Texas Southern and try to find a way to get a win."