Idaho forced 10 second-half turnovers and held the Pioneers to just 25.0 percent shooting after the break to overcome a one-point halftime deficit in the win. The Vandals have gone 8-2 in their last 10 games to get to .500 after owning a 3-8 record entering January. Idaho improves to 9-4 in Western Athletic Conference play with the win while Denver falls to 11-13 overall and 6-7 in WAC play.
"Overall, obviously I'm pleased with the win," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. "It's a different type of game than we've been involved in in a while. It was a real grinder to me. But it's nice to win a game when you're grinding. We haven't won a lot of those. You've got to push back and keep battling, and I'm proud of our players because I think we really did that tonight."
The Vandals never found a rhythm early in the first half, and fell behind by 11, 25-14, with just over seven minutes to play in the half. But Idaho cranked up its defense, holding Denver without a point for four and a half minutes, using a 12-0 run to take a brief 26-25 lead. Denver answered with a 6-1 spurt and a Stacey Barr 3-pointer made the score 31-30 at the break.
Idaho shot just 29.0 percent in the first half while Denver shot 41.4 percent, but the second half was a completely different story. While holding the Pioneers to just 9-of-36 shooting in the second half and outscoring them 18-9 off turnovers, the Vandals shot 45.2 percent after the break.
"We kind of loosened up in the second half," Newlee said. "Our offense got more in sync, we were able to get the ball moving and get some great looks, and you can see the shooting percentage was much better for us in the second half."
Denver opened the second-half scoring to take a 33-30 lead, but Idaho went on a 16-0 run that lasted 6:09 and left the Vandals leading 46-35. While the Pioneers never let the game get away from them, as Idaho's lead never grew past 14, the Vandals had an answer for every Pioneer threat. Idaho's lead hovered between seven and 14 points until the final six-point margin.
"Every part of the game - rebounding, trying to get in there and score, even out on the wings - they were really physical with us," Idaho junior post Alyssa Charlston said. "You have to give credit to them for keeping that energy up but we did a good job of handling it in the end."
Charlston finished with a team-high 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. That total leaves her with 997 career points, just three shy of becoming the 18th Vandal player to join the 1,000-point club.
Freshman Christina Salvatore went 4-for-10 from 3-point range to finish with 16 points for Idaho. With 68s this season, she is just four shy of tying Idaho's single-season record for 3-pointers made. Freshman Ali Forde had seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks in the game, and fellow freshman Connie Ballestero had nine assists - two shy of her career-high - and six points. Barr, a sophomore, had six points and six rebounds for Idaho, and sophomore Krissy Karr, junior Addie Schivo and senior Jessica Graham each added five points.
For the game, Idaho shot 37.1 percent from the field and held Denver to 32.3 percent shooting. The Vandals connected on 9-of-28 (32.1 percent) of their 3-pointers, and 15-of-24 (62.5 percent) free throws. Denver owned a 48-39 rebounding advantage and an 11-7 edge in second-chance points. Idaho's 14-17 turnover advantage led to a 29-11 lead in second-chance points.
The Vandals will go for their first four-game winning streak since February of 2005 when it heads to Texas to face UT Arlington on Feb. 14. Idaho will also visit Louisiana Tech on Feb. 16 before returning home for its final two home games of the season Feb. 28 and March 2 when it hosts UTSA and Texas State. Idaho's season-finale is March 9 at Seattle U.
"We have a really good opportunity to keep climbing from here, and we have been improving more and more throughout the season and that's exciting to see," Charlston said. "You want to be playing your best at the end of the season. We're improving so much and getting so many contributions from so many people. You can't just shut down one player and expect to beat us. You can't even shut down two players and expect to beat us. Everyone is feeling really confident and feeling good about team chemistry and that's huge."