For the first time since 1993, the Idaho men’s basketball team will be playing for a conference tournament championship. The fifth-seeded Vandals upset No. 1 seed Utah Valley 74-69 in the Western Athletic Conference semifinals to reach Saturday’s WAC championship game, which will tip off at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
The Vandals trailed for only 46 seconds of the 40 minutes and led by as many as 10 points midway through the second half. But Utah Valley went on an 8-0 run that took only 80 seconds to get right back into the game. Idaho responded, however, with a 3-pointer from senior Glen Dean to pull back ahead by five.
The Wolverines continued to cut into the deficit, cutting it to a one-point game on three occasions until Idaho got a 3-pointer from Connor Hill, a defensive stop and a transition layup from Sekou Wiggs to widen the margin to six, 70-64. Utah Valley cut that in half with a 3-pointer then got a steal on the other end, but Holton Hunsaker missed the would-be game-tying 3-pointer, and Stephen Madison secured the win for Idaho with a pair of free throws on the other end.
“They’re a really good offensive team and our guys did a great job getting the stops when we needed to and getting the rebounds when we needed to,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said.
Idaho, which got to 16-17 on the season with its win Friday, is certainly peaking at the right time. The Vandals have won four straight games heading into Saturday’s championship, and are 6-1 in their last seven.
“What a great win for our program tonight,” Verlin said. “I couldn’t be happier for all the guys in the locker room and all the veterans who have waited so long for this. It’s a little bitter-sweet because we’re leaving the WAC but I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish the last six weeks of the season.”
Madison scored 25 points for the Vandals and went 8-for-10 at the free throw line, often hearing M-V-P chants from the Vandal faithful when he touched the ball. The senior scored 26 points in Idaho’s quarterfinal victory over Kansas City.
Junior Mike Scott added 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and junior Connor Hill added 12 points. Ty Egbert came in off the bench to lead the Vandals with seven rebounds, including three on the offensive end.
“All season our coaches have been telling us to be aggressive, but considering the fact that this could have been our last game, it seemed like when he told us to be aggressive it was a little different this game,” Scott said. “I kept that in mind and went out and executed.”
The Vandals shot 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3, going 8-for-18 from long range for the second consecutive day.
The Wolverines held a 31-29 rebounding advantage and shot 49 percent from the field but only 21 percent from 3.
“Our guys did a great job flying to shooters,” Verlin said. “Our ball-screen defense was superb tonight, and what we really did was challenge those shots and got them off their rhythm. More importantly than that, our defensive intensity was as good as it’s been all year and we were able to force them to go two or three steps beyond the arc to start their offense, and I really thought that was key.”
Idaho’s last conference tournament championship was in 1990 when the Vandals beat Eastern Washington to win the Big Sky. Idaho lost the Big Sky championship game in 1991 and 1993.
“We’re coming together great,” Madison said. “We’ve been working all year to get better every day, that’s what coach has been telling us and our team chemistry is really coming together. We’re starting to play as a unit and that’s what is showing on the court.”