On paper, it appeared to be an easy path to victory.
The Idaho men’s basketball team entered Thursday night’s matchup against Southern Utah with an opportunity to keep momentum on its side following a 77-62 road win Saturday at Idaho State.
The team was all smiles during pregame warmups, with juniors Victor Sanders and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan putting on an improvised dunk contest in front of an energized student section.
But once the opening tip came, the Vandals had difficulty gaining traction against a notoriously weak Thunderbirds defense.
Idaho needed a 13-2 run to advance a one-point lead at the break, and it wasn’t until the waning moments of the second half that a layup from Sanders gave Idaho an 11-point advantage and clinched a 79-67 victory.
Although the win may not have been pretty, it showcased a tenacious spirit the Vandals have to adopt with Perrion Callandret sidelined by a right knee injury.
Sanders once again shouldered the offensive workload with a career-high 33 points, but junior forward Brayon Blake also turned heads with a 14-point performance and eight boards. Junior small forward Jordan Scott made an impact on the game with a physical outing that included 10 points and six rebounds for the Vandals.
If the Vandals want to earn a top seed in the Big Sky postseason tournament for the second consecutive year, then the team will need to continue to display this type of determination and grit on the hardwood.
Idaho accomplished this very same feat last year. When Callandret and Sanders went down with separate injuries, Mkrtychyan and senior Ty Egbert rose to the challenge to provide the team with a much-needed boost at the block.
The Vandal big men were once again a force in the paint Thursday night, outscoring Southern Utah 36-16.
This win comes at an opportune time for Idaho. The team is in the midst of a promising four-game stretch against the bottom programs in the conference standings. This provides the Vandals with an opportunity to tinker with offensive schemes before a tough road meeting Jan. 28 against Montana.
Throughout the course of a 30-game season, there will be good and bad performances, but one thing is for certain — the team is moving in the right direction.
Josh Grissom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GoshJrissom