|Women's hoops on upward trend|
MOSCOW, Idaho - The Idaho women's basketball team continued its upward trend in 2010-11 as it reached the postseason for the first time in 25 years by tallying its highest win total in six seasons.
Idaho's 15 wins were the most for the team since 2004-05, and its three wins over Boise State were a first in a single season in program history.
But the season that ended with in a 15-16 overall record and a first-round loss in the Women's Basketball Invitational still left Idaho coach Jon Newlee something to be desired.
"With this group, I thought we could win the conference title or get an NCAA at-large bid," Newlee said. "I thought that was realistic with the group we had coming back, with the five seniors, and the crew coming in below them, and the depth that I thought we had going into the year."
But throughout the course of the season, Idaho players missed a combined 44 games with injury, devastating the depth that Newlee thought to be one of his teams' strengths.
"Unfortunately it didn't play out that way with the injuries, and that really hurt us," Newlee said. "That really affected our depth, which I thought was going to be a strength of ours, but really turned into more of a weakness."
Senior Bianca Cheever was out for eight games in November and December with a calf injury, junior Shaena Kuehu left the team for medical reasons in December, sophomore Jessica Graham missed the first month of the season while recovering from knee surgery that cut her 2009-10 season short, senior Rachele Kloke missed time off-and-on in February and March with a torn ligament in her knee, and senior Derisa Taleni missed Idaho's WAC tournament quarterfinal loss to Nevada.
"All five starters never were healthy at the same time, which is disappointing," Newlee said. "I thought we could have really got rolling and got together all on the same page and done a lot of damage in the WAC. To still end up in the WBI with everything that happened to us this year was amazing, because we could have quit and died and finished last in the WAC. I think we kind of responded to that and everybody took turns stepping up."
Despite battling injuries, the Vandals played tough basketball, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Idaho led the Western Athletic Conference in scoring defense and defensive rebounding, and also finished in the top three in field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense. Idaho's matchup-zone defense gave up only 63.8 points per game, and allowed the Vandals to keep undersized, more athletic post players on the floor, which played to Idaho's advantage on the offensive end.
Among Idaho's 15 wins were the programs first win over Montana -- which went on to win the Big Sky tournament -- since 2004-05, back-to-back road wins over Portland and Nevada which wrapped up a spell of 10 road games in 11 contests, three wins over in-state rival Boise State, including a 65-55 victory in the WAC tournament that send the Broncos out of the league for good, and a season sweep of New Mexico State.
After falling in the quarterfinals of the WAC tournament, the Vandals received an invite to the WBI, where they opened the 16-team tournament at South Dakota. Despite falling in the first round of the tournament, Newlee said it was a great reward for the seniors who helped build the program from the ground up.
"Getting the first post-season berth in 25 years definitely made me feel a little better," Newlee said. "I thought it was good that the seniors got rewarded with a taste of postseason play because they put a lot of hard work, sweat and tears into this program over the last three years that I've been here, and to go out that way I thought was a great tribute to them."
By season's end, Idaho senior Yinka Olorunnife, the only Vandal to start all 31 games of the season, welcomed a barrage of honors. Olorunnife was named WAC Player of the Week in late November, earned Oregon Invitational all-tournament team honors along with teammate Derisa Taleni, and was a second-team all-WAC, WAC all-defensive team, and WAC all-tournament team selection. Olorunnife also earned academic all-district honors, and was an Associated Press All-America honorable mention. Of course, her recognition was well-deserved. Olorunnife finished her career at Idaho as the school and Western Athletic Conference all-time leading rebounder with, 1,070, and sixth in school history with 1,389 points, among many other Idaho top-10s.
But Olorunnife wasn't the only Vandal to step up throughout the course of the season. Three different Idaho seniors averaged at least 10.0 points per game, and on any given night first-year Vandals Keri Arendse, Alyssa Charlston and Ganeaya Rogers were capable of torching opposing defenses.
"Yinka had a monster year," Newlee said. "Yinka had a monster career here, but I thought it was really a big positive for us that different people stepped up at different times and helped us get as far as we did. It could have been a really ugly year, but it turned out really positive."
Although the Vandals lose five important seniors, including 111 combined starts from the 2010-11 season, Idaho looks to reload for next year. Charlston, a freshman in 2010-11, has a year of experience under her belt, as does fellow freshman Ashley Walters and juniors Arendse, Rogers and Adrie Shiels. Jessica Graham will be a junior next season and has spent three years with the Vandals already.
"I think the six that are coming back can be contributors," Newlee said. "I'm also excited about the freshmen that we've got coming in. The positive is that the players who are coming back learned a lot this year. Some of them really caught on quick. I'm looking for big contributions from Keri and Ashley next year, and it's time for Ganeaya to step up too. If Jessica's knee can stay strong I think she can really help us out."
Despite ending their 25-year postseason drought, the Vandals continue to focus on even bigger goals.
"Paying in the postseason for the first time is a great way to go into next year as something huge to build on, knowing that our goal is still to get to the NCAA tournament," Newlee said.