MOSCOW - A stingy defensive effort and balanced offensive attack led to the third win in four games for the Idaho women's basketball team Saturday night, as the Vandals beat Western Athletic Conference foe UT Arlington 70-52 in the Cowan Spectrum.
Junior Alyssa Charlston led Idaho with a game-high 20 points on 10-of-15 shooting, freshman Connie Ballestero added 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Sophomore Maren Austgulen went 5-for-5 from the field and scored a career-high 11 points and freshman Christina Salvatore added 10 points for the Vandals.
The Vandals improve to 7-11 overall and 4-3 in the WAC with the win, while UT Arlington falls to 3-14 and 1-6 in the WAC with its sixth straight loss.
"We know we can compete with anyone in our conference and we can beat anyone," Ballestero said. "We have a good shot at winning a lot of our games coming up."
Austgulen's 11 points came in just 12 minutes of play, and top her previous career high of nine from her Idaho debut on Nov. 27. In addition to going 5-for-5 from the field, she made her only free throw attempt to complete a 3-point-play in the second half.
"You can't say enough good things about Maren coming in and being mentally ready to play," Newlee said of the 6-foot post. "Maren did a great job. She hasn't played in a few games but is always ready to play. I called her name and she got in there, finished inside, played tough defense in the post. She's there every day at practice working hard, waiting for her turn. I tell everybody, when your name is called, you've got to be ready, and she was definitely ready tonight, I was happy for her."
Freshman Ali Forde made her presence felt without scoring. She finished with eight rebounds, including five on the offensive end, four assists, four blocks and two steals.
The Vandals got off to a quick start in the first half. After UT Arlington took an early 6-5 lead, Idaho made eight consecutive shots and held the Mavericks without a field goal for 9:24, going on a 20-0 run to pull ahead 25-6. The Vandals led by as many as 20 before halftime before UTA chipped the lead down to 13, 34-21 at halftime.
"I loved our focus in the first half," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. "Our shot selection was good, and Connie obviously ignited the fire for us in the first half, along with Alyssa from an offensive standpoint. Defensively, we were doing what we wanted to do, besides the fouls. Both efforts were good."
An 8-0 run to start the second half gave the Vandals a 42-21 lead, but that was immediately followed by an 11-0 Maverick run that cut the lead to 10. But two nights after giving away a 20-point second half lead in a loss to Louisiana Tech, Idaho was able to answer with a 12-2 run that extended the lead back to 20 points with 8:17 to play. The Vandals built their lead to as many as 24 points with less than three minutes to play.
"We've got to get that monkey off our back, it's something that's plagued us this year," Newlee said. "The lead got down to 10 and we talked about getting the ball inside and finishing some layups and continuing to get some pressure going defensively and keep our energy level up. You get in the mindset sometimes of 'oh here we go again,' and that has to change and I was glad to see it change tonight after just one day off."
The Vandals held UTA to 30.0 percent (18-of-60) shooting for the game, and just 1-of-6 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Idaho shot 44 percent (29-of-66) and 31 percent (8-of-26) from 3.
"A wide-open 3 is a good shot for us, especially the way our kids can shoot it," Newlee said of his team that ranks 10th in NCAA Division I with 8.4 made 3s per game. "Tonight was just one of those nights it wasn't going in, but again, we gutted it out defensively and did a great job of shutting them down."
Idaho committed 12 turnovers in the game, and forced UTA into 17, but the Vandals were out-rebounded 44-38 and out-scored 15-8 in second-chance points.
Possibly the most popular woman on the Idaho campus, Janelle Chow made her Idaho debut to an ovation late in the second half. The former Idaho volleyball standout had a steal in one minute of play.
After playing five of its first seven WAC games at home, the Vandals will hit the road for four straight conference games. Idaho, however, is 2-0 in road WAC games after beating Denver and New Mexico State on the road last week. The Vandals start the trip with a Texas swing next week, visiting Texas State on Jan. 24 and UTSA on Jan. 26
"We should be coming with confidence," Newlee said of the upcoming road trip. "We've played well on the road this year and the last road trip was nice. We don't fear the road. We need to embrace the road and the challenges it presents. Hopefully that continues and we go down to Texas and take care of business."