For 20 minutes it looked like this game was going to be just as advertised — Two teams that had nothing to play for in terms of conference tournament seeding. Lackadaisical, going through the motions. Seattle went in to the locker room with the seven point lead.
The Redhawks were casually shooting 50-percent from the field, all while a seemingly un-energetic Idaho team were being stifled, unable to find open looks at the basket.
And then the Vandals took the Redhawks downtown and found their energy in the process. Idaho hit ten 3-point shots in the second behind the hot hands of Mike McChristian and Connor Hill and finished off Seattle 76-72 to end the regular season with its first two-game win streak since the first two conference games.
At one point in the second half Mike McChristian connected on six consecutive 3-point attempts, a stretch that saw Seattle’s seven point lead flip in to an Idaho lead of 12. The senior finished his senior night with 26 points, 7 assists and 4 steals.
The 3-point looks were there for Idaho all night, and Idaho took advantage. Seattle clamped down in a zone and it seemed had a very high emphasis on denying passes inside the Barone. Initially it was successful. Barone only had 11 first half points and scored the last 11 of his game-high 27 points in the final 7 minutes of the game when Idaho started to run on the Redhawks.
The Vandals simply worked the ball around the perimeter and took the shots which Seattle dared them to. Idaho finished the night 13-29 from beyond-the-arc, but were 10-16 in the second half. Hill tagged in four second half 3-point shots, going 4-7 in the second half.
“A couple plays there Mike was just catching, shooting. After the first one, I saw the second one going in and I said ‘uh-oh’,” Barone said. “I stopped going to boards, people stopped blocking me out. I don’t really know what else to say, that was one of the best shooting performances I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Then there was Connor Hill’s heat-check shot. Early in the shot clock with 9:51 remaining in the game he curled off a screen, squared up in the air as soon as he caught the ball and shot it fading away. Nothing but net.
“We were talking about that in the locker room, when Connor doesn’t square up before he shoots, he squares up in the air and it’s in 100-percent of the time,” Barone said. “He shoots, then he squares up, Connor man, he should shoot like that every time.”
Idaho isn’t going to win many games in which it only takes one more shot attempt than its opponent and shoots a lower percentage from the field, but the benefit of eight more three point makes than Seattle got the job done.
“You make ten threes in the second half you’d like to win by more than four, but four was enough tonight,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said.
The night was especially memorable for Mike McChristian, whose mother was in the crowd for the first time to watch him as a Vandal. McChristian had no idea she was going to be there until just hours before tip-off.
“The best part about it all is that my mom actually came down tonight, because I wasn’t expecting her at all and she surprised me, so that was just extra on top of that. So I’m feeling pretty good about everything right now,” he said.
Verlin acknowledged his teams’ lackadaisical first half play, also noting that tonight was a unique circumstance in that the game had no bearing on conference tournament seeding.
“This game was an interesting game, it didn’t mean anything for seeding, it really didn’t mean anything except for pride and playing for our seniors, and that’s where I challenged them more that way,” he said. “We need to send these four guys out the right way, and I thought our guys did a good job of that.”
Idaho to play New Mexico State in WAC quarterfinal, Thursday at noon
Three points is all that separated New Mexico State and Idaho this season, but three points is all the Aggies needed to complete the regular season sweep.
“We owe them a game, or two,” Barone said.
In both match-ups Idaho saw good stretches of play which put them in position to pull the upset late in the game — Both games saw catastrophic mistakes at the end of the game giving Aggie guard Daniel Mullings the opportunity to sink Idaho in the closing seconds with free throws.
“I think we’ve proven that we can hang with them and beat them. We’ll be on a neutral court too, coming in we’ll have all the confidence in the world we can win this game,” Barone said.