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Vandals are dealt a 'crushing blow'

The longest of seasons got a little longer Saturday afternoon for the Idaho Vandals, who wasted a golden opportunity to make it seem a little shorter.

After leading much of the second half, the Vandals blew a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation, barely missed a buzzer-beating shot at the end of the first overtime and finally fell 85-80 in double overtime to archrival Boise State in the regular-season finale for both teams.

Idaho ended the regular season 4-24 and 1-15 in its inaugural season in the WAC. The Vandals have dropped all 14 games they played on the road. They tied the school record for losses in a season, a mark they'll no doubt eclipse next week.

And all of that would have mattered just a little less if the Vandals could have found a way to hang on against the Broncos.

"Obviously it wouldn't have done much for our record, but it would have been big in my heart, and I know for this program and the University of Idaho to beat them," said Idaho guard Tanoris Shepard, who scored a team-high 23 points, including 10 straight for the Vandals in the first overtime.

The 5-foot-11 Shepard, a fifth-year senior, has never beaten the Broncos and, barring a miracle run in next week's WAC Tournament in Reno, never will.

"It's a crushing blow. It really is. It's absolutely crushing. When it comes to this game of basketball, I'm very sensitive. When it's an in-state rivalry, it puts more pressure on it. I'm very sensitive to that fact," said Shepard, the only senior on this year's team. "I wanted to beat these guys in my heart. That's just how things

work out sometimes. It is very crushing. It's demoralizing to me."

In a season filled with demoralizing losses large (by 38 to Utah State and 33 at Portland State) and small (four points to Hawaii and six to Nevada), Saturday's clearly stung. The beaming smiles that dotted the Vandal sidelines throughout the game were replaced by tears in the locker room.

Tears of pain.

Tears of anguish.

Tears of having let one — one they would remember forever — slip away.

"The kids are crying. They hurt," Idaho coach Leonard Perry said.

Perry, too, has never beaten the Broncos. The Vandals' fifth-year head coach is 0-10 against his biggest rival.

It's not certain he'll get another chance, either. Coaches with 48-96 records, Perry's mark in five seasons at his alma mater, don't get a lot of extra chances. The Idaho faithful, giddy at the prospect of Dennis Erickson on the sidelines during the fall, aren't likely to stick with a basketball coach after a four-win campaign.

To his credit, he's never turned on his players. And to their credit, they've never turned on him.

"He's a great coach. That's just my personal opinion and that's not just because I played for him. It's because I really believe that," Shepard said. "He's a really good coach. He knows what he's doing. He's got the right philosophy, the right ingredients to win. It's about us executing. That's really what it's about. It's not about the coaches. They only can do so much."

Perry did as much as he could Saturday. At times, he appeared more cheerleader than coach, hoping to extract every bit of energy out of his team, living and dying with each make and miss. After one big basket, Perry let out a Tiger Woods style fist pump. After David Dubois' desperation shot rattled in and out at the end of the first overtime, Perry collapsed to the floor.

"You watch Leonard coach and you talk to him and he's a fighter and he stays after it. His kids play the same way. His kids play with his temperament. They're going to compete down to the end of the game," said Boise State coach Greg Graham, who improved to 8-0 against Idaho.

"Leonard's trademark is his kids play hard and they battle you. They compete. They don't quit."

They didn't quit Saturday.

Boise State, which slogged through a miserable 37 minutes, discovered its way in the final 13.

The Vandals, so close to achieving their moment to remember in a season of moments to forget, couldn't hold on.

And so the longest season marches on.