He called it the thousand-yard stare — the tenseness, the back-of-the-mind thinking about the 10-game winning streak that replaced the loose demeanor the conference-leading Vandals usually come into a game with.
Undefeated in conference play no more, Idaho coach Jon Newlee saw his fears come to fruition Thursday night in the Cowan Spectrum with his women’s basketball team falling to 10-1 in Western Athletic Conference play after losing to Bakersfield 79-60.
“Just blank, the thousand yard stare, I call it,” Newlee said. “There was too many of them that had that stare, and they don’t play well with that stare. They’re better off laughing and joking in the locker room.”
Idaho saw a familiar scene play out on the court, except that it was flipped on them instead. Bakersfield had a double-digit lead less than eight minutes into the game and Idaho never really got close, trailing 15 points at halftime and eventually falling by 19.
The players were less certain than their coach that the pressure of an undefeated season got to them, although the situation was still unprecedented for them.
“It’s not a position we’ve been in before, that’s the truth. We should be able to handle the pressure with how many experienced players we have on this team,” senior post Alyssa Charlston said. “For any team that’s kind of going to get into your head a little bit. The pressure of not only the community but the media and everybody hyping it up.”
Prior to Thursday night, the wins were piling up for Idaho — most with ease. In fact, a trip to Bakersfield which yielded a 27-point victory was one of many easy wins for this Vandal team that cruised to 10-0 with only one game within single-digits at the final buzzer.
The historic run caught up to them.
“Without a doubt, we’ve been feeling that, the team’s been feeling that, we’re a much looser group on the road for whatever reason,” Newlee said. “Better now than Las Vegas (in the conference tournament), I do know that. I do know if we would have continued to keep winning, we might not have been able to get out of the locker room in Las Vegas. The world didn’t end because we lost, we’re still a game up.”
What arose on Thursday night were questions that will surely have to be answered if Idaho runs into Bakersfield in the WAC Tournament. The Roadrunners dominated Idaho on the inside, blocking four shots and deflecting many more. Bakersfield held Idaho to 18 points in the paint and keeping the superb post-duo of Charlston and freshman Ali Forde to only 17 combined points on 28-percent shooting. Forde had only two of those points on the night.
As a team Idaho only shot 26-percent — barely better if the statistics were modified for the shots Idaho took in the last two minutes down 18 points.
It was athleticism and a defense that lulled Idaho into bad decisions in one-on-one match-ups that did the Vandals in.
“Defensively, we can’t let them get that deep, because that’s when they can really use it to their advantage,” Charlston said. “We are a better shooting team, but they are very good at getting you into the lane, getting you off-balance and making those dumb passes down-low.”
History is still available for Idaho, even it won’t be an undefeated history. Still a game up on Bakersfield in the loss column, a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament provides Idaho with the best opportunity to make it to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
Bakersfield, a likely No. 2 seed in next month’s conference tournament, might stand in the way of that.
“Now that we split, if we see them in WAC, there will be sure a lot of getting back at it, wanting to get back against them,” junior guard Christina Salvatore said. “I guess, yeah, like a Seattle (type rivalry) you could say.”
Sean Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org