The Idaho men’s basketball team survived yet again, chopping down Northern Arizona University (NAU) Lumberjacks with a late stand Thursday in a 77-75 victory.
With the win and a Weber State loss to Montana, the Vandals are much closer to a first-round bye in the Big Sky tournament, as they are tied for third in the conference.
Idaho led 25 points midway through the second half. A late 15-0 run by NAU over five minutes propelled the Lumberjacks to within one point with seven seconds remaining.
It took a block by junior forward Jordan Scott on a shot attempt from half-court to seal the victory.
“We had a couple guys step up and make big plays,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. “None bigger than Jordan Scott getting a piece of that last play.”
Junior guard Victor Sanders returned to the lineup after sitting out Feb. 25 against Weber State due to swelling in his calf. Sanders would get off to a hot start with a 4-4 from deep in the first half, before cooling off down the stretch.
With 21 points on 6-9 shooting, 5-8 from beyond the arc, Sanders passed former forward Deon Watson on the Idaho scoring list, moving into 13th.
“(Sanders) not going to say anything, he never says anything. He was just happy to be back out there,” Verlin said. “I just have so much confidence and faith in him that I thought I needed him out there to keep going.”
The Vandals got on the board first with four points from junior forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan. The Lumberjacks struggled early on, committing several fouls leading to an early 10-point Idaho lead.
3-pointers within two minutes from NAU freshman guards Chris Bowling and Jojo Anderson cut the lead to 22-21 at the 9:20 mark, giving the Lumberjacks momentum.
Down the stretch in the first half, NAU had a cold spell, only scoring seven points in the final nine minutes, compared to Idaho’s 27. The Vandals hit 9 threes in the first, including a deep step-back shot from Sanders.
The Vandals shot 69.6 percent from the field and 75 percent from three-point range, compared to 32 and 35 percent, respectively, from NAU. Idaho walked into the locker room at half with a 48-28 lead.
After a mini-run by NAU cut the Idaho lead to 15, the Vandals found another hot-streak. Sanders connected on a three and followed it up with a floater.
Mkrtychyan stepped in with a three of his own, pushing the Idaho lead to its largest 61-35 at the 16-minute mark.
The Lumberjacks began to slowly claw themselves out of the hole. Initiated by strong defense and interior play from senior center Ako Kaluna, NAU turned the tides of the game with a 27-5 run, while preventing an Idaho field goal for nine minutes.
The Vandals finished the second half shooting 35 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep. NAU’s runs primarily were born out of capitalization on missed Idaho opportunities.
Being in ninth place in Big Sky standings, the Lumberjacks played with nothing to lose and nearly pulled off the upset. Guard Kye de Laveaga knocked down a three with seven seconds remaining, cutting the lead to 76-75.
Free-throws from sophomore forward Nate Sherwood and junior forward Brayon Blake in the final 30 seconds of the contest helped put the game away.
“We played so well for about 25 minutes, the best we’ve played offensively all year,” Verlin said. “And then they caught fire and we lost our focus. That probably disappoints me as much as anything, but we got a win.”
NAU improved in the game during the second half, shooting 57 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three-point range.
Lumberjack guard Marcus DeBerry finished with a team-high 13 points. Kaluna added 12 points and eight rebounds, de Laveaga and forward Jordyn Martin also finished with 12 points apiece.
Blake finished with 16 points, going three-for-three from behind the line. Mkrtychyan finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. Scott added 10 points.
Idaho travels to Cedar City, Utah to take on Southern Utah University Mar. 5 in the final matchup of the regular season.
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org