Vandals think big

Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman Idaho forward Brayon Blake drives the lane against UC Irvine’s Tommy Rutherford and Jonathan Galloway on Thursday in the Vandals’ loss at CenturyLink Arena in Downtown Boise. Idaho was picked to win the Big Sky Conference this season. Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman

Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman Idaho guard Mikayla Ferenz takes aim before sinking a 3-point shot against Eastern Oregon on Thursday at CenturyLink Arena. Ferenz had 21 points in the win. Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman

The University of Idaho men’s basketball team stumbled against UC Irvine on Thursday at CenturyLink Arena, but the expectations remain the same heading into the start of Big Sky Conference play later this month.

“Obviously, we’ve got high hopes. We’ve got a very good basketball team,” Idaho men’s coach Don Verlin said after his Vandals’ 67-59 loss to the Anteaters (5-10). “We’ve got a basketball team that can defend it and rebound at a pretty high level. Like I told our guys, we’ve had a pretty decent preseason. It’s a little bittersweet because we probably played our best basketball game that we’ve played all year Monday night, and then come here and not play quite as well.”

The Vandals (8-4) won at Western Michigan 82-52 on Monday and also earned a 91-64 victory over Washington State on Dec. 6.

With their top seven scorers back from last season — one in which they advanced to the CollegeInsider.com quarterfinals — the Vandals were picked to win the Big Sky in both preseason polls. It was the first preseason No. 1 billing for the Vandals since the 1998-99 season in the Big West.

They hope to translate the early nod into their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990, but March is a long way away.

“I think we just got to figure it out each day and figure out how to get better, figure out what we have to do to get wins day in and day out and string it together,” said Idaho senior Victor Sanders, who led the Vandals with 17 points Thursday. “It’s a tough loss tonight, but we’re going to go home for Christmas break, reset and get ready for conference, which is really the most important part of the season.”

The Idaho women also have hit some bumps during nonconference play, but not Thursday against Eastern Oregon. The Vandals beat the NAIA squad 84-70 in the first game of the doubleheader, which drew an announced crowd of 4,096.

Despite a core group of returners and a 2017 postseason appearance, the Vandals (4-7) were picked to finish fourth in the preseason media poll and fifth in the coaches’ poll.

Idaho advanced to the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational last season, earning a postseason victory for the first time since the 1986 WNIT. The Vandals have made four NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, three of which came in the past five years (2013, 2014, 2016).

“That’s always our goal, to get to that NCAA Tournament,” Idaho women’s coach Jon Newlee said. “We want to get back. It’s a great experience for us. We have some veterans who have been through that, gotten their (2016 Big Sky Tournament) championship rings.”

Three starters and three letter winners return from last year’s team, including reigning Big Sky scoring leader Mikayla Ferenz. Entering Thursday’s game against Eastern Oregon, Ferenz was averaging 20.3 points, and she had 21 against the Mountaineers.

Ferenz and teammate Taylor Pierce have earned the nickname “Splash Sisters,” as the two junior guards had a combined 424 made 3-pointers before the start of this season.

Pierce — who set a single-season school record with 93 3s last season — made seven triples against the Mountaineers (12-3) for a game-leading and career-high 29 points. Boise High graduate Isabelle Hadden added eight points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. Maya Ah You-Dias (Middleton High) led the Mountaineers with 17 points.

“It’s super fun playing with Tay and Mik. Every time they shoot it, I just feel like it’s going in,” Hadden said. “They rarely miss. … We just always have so much confidence in their shots.”

Newlee put together a particularly tough nonconference schedule that included games against 2017 NCAA Tournament teams Washington, Ohio State and Arizona State. Although their 99-56 loss to No. 5 Ohio State and 77-33 loss to the Sun Devils were hard to swallow, Newlee believes the high level of competition will pay off. Idaho also scheduled Colorado State and TCU.

“It was tough, but coach schedules that way for a reason,” Pierce said. “Even when we take tough losses early in the year, we can learn from them, and then once we get to that conference tournament at the end of the year, those teams are not as great compared to Ohio State and TCU.”

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