The Vandal’s bench erupted as Connor Hill scored his 29th point, but the senior from Post Falls, Idaho showed no signs of excitement and trotted down the court with the look of determination.
Hill finished with a career-high 32 points and was 8-for-13 from behind the arc in Idaho’s 77-54 win over Idaho State.
“I went to Hawaii for four days, so I need to do that more often,” Hill joked about the secret to his shooting performance. “I knew that they were going to play the zone the whole game, so I knew to just stay aggressive and just look for my shot … I’m just thankful that I hit some shots to help the team win.”
With the victory, Idaho (6-6) won its first game in its new home, the Big Sky Conference. The program rejoined the conference after it left in 1996 to join the Big West Conference.
The Vandals won’t get much of a break as they are back in action 7 p.m. Saturday in the Cowan Spectrum against Weber State — a program that won both the regular season title and conference tournament last year.
“This is a good basketball conference, there’s good teams here,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “What we gotta make sure we do is come make sure we’re ready to play against Weber State.”
With the blowout win over Idaho State, Verlin said the Vandals will find out how good they are when they take on Weber State.
A benefit of the lopsided victory, however, was that Verlin was able to rest his starters. Hill exited the game with five minutes to play, and other starters followed.
The game was Idaho’s first since the Dec. 22 loss at Northern Kentucky. Verlin said while the team had a long time between games, it was still good to get guys rest after five days of tough practice.
“I think this is the longest break I’ve ever had a team have, so I was nervous coming into this game,” Verlin said. “I thought the guys did a good job in doing what they were coached to do.”
It didn’t look good for the Vandals early, as they fell behind 6-0 to Idaho State. Idaho fought back though, and went on a 22-4 run to take the lead 27-10.
Toward the end of the run, Hill got into a zone where he scored four-straight 3-pointers.
“Yeah, I was feeling it tonight,” Hill said. “I felt like my teammates were finding me in the zone (ISU’s defense) … I was just getting open looks and I was just knocking them down for the team — that’s my job.”
Verlin said it wasn’t the Vandals’ offense that led them to take the huge led, but it was their defense, instead.
“We held them to 10 points in the first 10 minutes,” he said. “I thought our defense was as good as it’s been since probably the WSU game … If we get good defensively, we can be pretty good in this conference because we’re going to be a pretty good offensive team.”
After a 5-6 non-conference record to start the season, Hill said conference play is a new season for the Vandals.
Hill said he doesn’t want to be left out of the conference tournament in his final season as a Vandal.
“We do not want to be one of those four teams left out,” he said. “Especially as seniors, that’s not how we want to go out — we’re trying to win the league.”
Korbin McDonald can be reached at email@example.com