Idaho State was no stranger to quarantine. Perhaps for the first time in history, that was a positive.
Two separate positive COVID-19 tests in October forced the Bengals to go a month without a full-team preseason practice. In that time, Idaho State coach Ryan Looney tried to drum up ideas to keep his team sharp from their apartment or dorm room.
Sometimes, he’d have them wake up at 8 a.m. just so the team could all eat breakfast together via Zoom. Other times, his wife, Julianna, a licensed personal trainer, would conduct 40-minute workouts over the computer, allowing players to compete for the most reps or best times. All that was an effort to keep his players mentally healthy and still active while they were essentially locked up.
But the Bengals returned to the court and looked rusty. Idaho State lost its first four games and had at least 19 turnovers in each. So when the Bengals went into quarantine again following a positive test right around Christmas -- which canceled ISU’s two-game series with Weber State -- there were fears of another sluggish return.
Instead, Idaho State swept its road series with Northern Arizona, including a 76-70 win over the Lumberjacks (3-8, 2-3 Big Sky) on Saturday, a contest in which ISU shot 54% and recorded a season-low seven turnovers.
“I don’t want to say it was a good thing that we were in quarantine before, but we definitely knew what we were getting ourselves into,” said junior guard Austin Smellie, who had a career-high 24 points against NAU. “We knew what we had to do to stay ready.”
So, what did Looney do differently in the Bengals’ second time out of quarantine?
The second-year ISU coach remembered that the top-ranked team in the country, Gonzaga, went through its own bout with the virus a few weeks ago. After multiple positive tests, the Bulldogs shut their program down for a week and canceled five games. Their first game tipped off five days after their quarantine ended.
In the week following, Gonzaga beat No. 3 Iowa by 11 and top-20 Virginia by 23.
Knowing this, Looney put in a phone call to Gonzaga coach Mark Few, asking for tips on how to best return a college basketball team from quarantine. Looney said a Gonzaga assistant also helped him, telling the Idaho State coach how much time the Bulldogs spent on the practice floor right after they emerged from isolation.
“I don’t know how much I want to share because I don’t want other teams following the same plan,” Looney said. “Fresh out of quarantine, we’re still not in classes, so we had a lot of long days. We practiced on certain days, watched a lot of film, spent a lot of time on Zoom together while we were not allowed to be on the floor. Then a lot of extra shooting, too.
“I think, like anything, once you experience something and then have to do it again, you try to tweak some things, make adjustments and try to do it better the second time around.”
They certainly did. The Bengals’ six-point win on Saturday improved their record to 6-5 overall and 3-1 in the Big Sky, good for second in the conference among teams that have played more than two games.
On Saturday, Idaho State was up 21 at halftime before an inspired Northern Arizona team, led by preseason all-conference guard Cameron Shelton and his game-high 28 points, chipped away and eventually pulled within one score with just under two minutes to play.
When ISU's lead dropped to three, Looney called a timeout.
He didn’t draw up a specific play, he said, but simply told his team to throw it in the post. NAU had adjusted the way it guarded the post and ball screens from the first game, which often freed up Bengals’ shooters on the perimeter. Even if center Brayden Parker didn’t have a shot, Looney figured the Bengals could get a good look on the outside.
That’s exactly what happened. Parker chucked it back outside to guard Tarik Cool, who tallied 17 points. It was swung around the key before Cool fed Malik Porter in the paint. The Lumberjacks doubled Porter and he found Robert Ford III in the corner, who swung it out to a wide-open Smellie.
With three seconds on the shot clock, Smellie released his picture-perfect jump shot. It left his fingers and he started backpedaling, holding his follow-through. He made it to about half court before the ball flung through the net.
On the next possession, Smellie buried another triple, icing the game for Idaho State. Smellie scored a team- and career-high two dozen points on 8 of 10 shooting, including hitting 4 of 5 from beyond the arc.
“Over the last couple games, I’ve been in a little bit of a slump,” Smellie said. “But (my teammates) have been telling me, ‘Just keep shooting that thing, keep letting it go.’”
Added Looney: “He’s consistent. He comes to work every day. You guys haven’t gotten to watch him shoot it well on game day yet. We get to watch it every day in practice. It was only a matter of time before they started going in.”
And they couldn’t have come at a better time. Idaho State now has momentum and confidence as it begins a stretch where it’ll play 11 of its next 16 games at home. For a team picked to finish second-to-last in the conference, the Bengals suddenly look like a potential threat to compete in the Big Sky.
“This game was the perfect example as to what’s different,” Smellie said. “Last year, we lost about nine or 10 games that were just like this. Here, we won. It shows that we’re growing up.”
IDAHO STATE 76, NORTHERN ARIZONA 70
Idaho State 46 30 – 76
Northern Arizona 25 45 – 70
Idaho State – Smellie 24, Cool 17, Porter 9, Visentin 8, Ford III 8, Parker 4, Carr 3, Taylor III 3.
Northern Arizona – Shelton 28, Brown 15, Mains 11, Towt 6, Haymon 3, Mahaney 3, Aguek 2, Green 2.