Idaho falls to 9-16 overall and 5-10 in the Western Athletic Conference, while LA Tech, which is receiving votes in both the Associated Press and USA Today Top 25 polls, moves to 23-3 overall and 14-0 in the WAC.
“You can’t give a good team like that life,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said after the game. “This is a good team – they’re 23-3, they’ve got the third-longest win streak in the country, they’ve got good players that are going to make plays, and you can’t let it get to that situation and we did that tonight.”
That situation was an Idaho lead as high as nine in the second half that slowly unraveled with a combination of turnovers and defensive miscues that led to open shots for the Bulldogs. LA Tech Sophomore Raheem Appleby was the recipient of most of those looks and scored 23 of his game-high 28 points after halftime.
“We don’t execute fundamentally – we dribble it off our foot, hold it between our legs, dribble too far into the press, don’t get our shots up,” Verlin said. “The bottom line is, they got the ball to their best player and we didn’t get it to ours.”
Idaho held a 36-27 lead with 17:36 to play, but Appleby notched three straight 3-pointers to pull the Bulldogs within three at 39-36 with 15:39 left in the game. Idaho held on to its lead and extended it to six on a Connor Hill 3-pointer at the 11:21 mark, 46-40, but LA Tech answered with a 12-3 run to grab a 52-49 lead.
Idaho pulled within one point, 52-51, with 6:11 to play. The Vandals went 4-of-7 from the field in the remainder of regulation, but committed four turnovers and couldn’t get the stops they needed to close the gap.
Senior center Kyle Barone led Idaho with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, along with eight rebounds and a pair of blocks. Junior guard Stephen Madison added 13 points and eight rebounds, while senior guard Mike McChristian had nine points, 10 rebounds and three assists.
As a team, the Vandals went 21-of-51 (.412) from the field, but just 3-of-15 (.200) from 3-point range. Idaho hit 16 of its 21 free throw attempts for a .762 clip. The Vandals also out-rebounded the Bulldogs by a 27-25 margin and outscored LA Tech, 18-11, on second chance points.
The Bulldogs went 23-of-57 (.404) from the field and 12-of-23 (.522) from 3-point range. They went just 9-of-17 (.529) from the free throw line, but after Idaho held 13-6 first-half edge in points off turnovers, LA Tech switched roles and outscored Idaho in the second half off giveaways by an 11-0 margin.
“That’s the bottom line,” Verlin said of the turnover margin. “They get a bunch of extra possessions in the second half. They get nine more shots than us in the second half and that’s the game, simply put.”
Idaho gets a break from WAC play next week for the Ramada BracketBusters, when the Vandals head to Pocatello, Idaho, to play Idaho State. The Bengals are 5-20 overall and 4-12 in Big Sky Conference play after a narrow home loss to Montana on Saturday. The Vandals and Bengals will face off on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 1 p.m. (PT).