Utah State and Idaho: A WAC Rivalry Shuts Its DoorsPosted by CNguon on February 1st, 2013
Kenny Ocker is a Northwest-based journalist who filed this report after Utah State played Idaho at the Cowan Spectrum in Moscow.
No conference has been more drastically affected by the conference-realignment carousel than the WAC. It has been gutted over the years, first losing Arizona and Arizona State in the late 1970s, then the entire Mountain West in the mid-1990s. Each time, the WAC managed to find new members and persevere, but each time that took a little more of the conference’s luster. But this most recent time may be what takes the WAC down to the also-ran level of the Big West or Big Sky, instead of the mid-sized conference it once was.
And each time, it was tied to football.
Idaho looks to be the biggest victim of this maneuvering, and their current conference rival, Utah State, is partially to blame by taking the void in the Mountain West left by Beehive State brethren BYU and Utah. That move, among others, has left the WAC canceling football and Idaho as an independent. In basketball, it works out much better for the Aggies as well; coach Stew Morrill has long been hesitant to schedule games against teams that won’t play return games in Logan, but that won’t crush his team’s at-large chances anymore now that he will play in a league where top-50 RPI wins can be had regularly. And for the Vandals, it again works out terribly, as they lose the one team they’ve had a consistent geographic rivalry against for more than a decade, especially given the states’ cultural similarities and the school’s similar agriculture roots. (Sure, Seattle may be physically closer to Moscow than Logan, Utah, but the only similarity between the schools is a time zone.)
But for one night, anyway, when Utah State ran away, Idaho did something about it. The Aggies started out with an 18-3 lead, with six points each from Jarred Shaw and Marcel Davis. Haunted by the Utah State press, Idaho got off just three shots and had three turnovers in that span. But a 25-foot three-pointer from guard Connor Hill sparked a furious response from the Vandals. Next time down the court, Paul Barone slammed home a putback. Hill added another three-pointer. After missing a layup, Robert Harris Jr. took a charge and followed it with a three-pointer from the top of the key. After a Utah State layup, Mansa Habeeb replied with one of his own. And when Barone hit a turnaround jumper off an offensive rebound, the Vandals got to within 20-18. Though the Aggies never relinquished their lead in the first half, the biggest it got was 31-25 at halftime thanks to a Marvin Jean three-pointer with five seconds left.
The second half continued with the back-and-forth nature of the last few minutes of the first half, with Utah State’s lead yo-yo-ing from anywhere between two and six points. The Vandals, playing against an Aggies team that dresses eight players thanks to injuries – notably to leading scorer Preston Medlin and fellow starter Kyisean Reed – pushed the tempo to exploit their advantage while also keeping their shooting rhythm. Four early-second-half three-pointers from the Vandals were capped by Mansa Habeeb with 11 minutes to go, closing the score to 46-44. But back-to-back three-pointers from the Aggies’ TeNale Roland with 10 minutes to go drained the momentum Idaho had been riding. Roland’s threes – his only field goals – sparked a 15-2 Utah State run and Habeeb’s three was Idaho’s last field goal for more than seven minutes. As Idaho coach Don Verlin put it after the game, “it snowballed on us.” True to form, the Aggies did eventually end up leaving Idaho behind, winning 77-67. Verlin, a former member of Morrill’s Utah State staff, didn’t mince words after the game. “I got my butt out-coached tonight,” Verlin said. “They were way ahead of us all night long. There was no question about it. We couldn’t guard them.”
Despite a season-high in three-pointers and a season-low in turnovers, Idaho’s inability to get stops doomed them, and an inability to get rebounds – the Vandals had just 16, 11 on the defensive glass – exacerbated that. Utah State’s Shaw piled up 27 points and nine rebounds, and fellow forward Spencer Butterfield had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Asked whether he would be excited to see Utah State leave the WAC, Verlin talked of Morrill’s 580 career wins and said, “it shows by his record. Any time you play guys like that, it makes you better, it makes your team better, but I think the answer to that question is yes.”