Idaho finished its regular season with a win at Southern Utah, defeating the Thunderbirds 84-75. Following the win, Vandals secured a fourth-seed position and will kick off the tournament against No. 5 seed Montana.
Idaho head coach Don Verlin said he is proud of the way the team has fought through the season.
“I thought our ball moved extremely well,” Verlin said. “I could not be more proud of these guys. When we started this deal at 1-3, you would’ve never thought we’d be 12-6. We had one heck of a run and it’s just a tribute to the guys in the locker room.”
Verlin said the successful season is due in part to the friendships on the team.
“They’ve gotten tough, they’ve gotten together, they’ve worked like crazy,” Verlin said. “The thing I like about this team, probably better than any other team I’ve had here, is that they really like each other. They care about each other, and that’s going to give us a chance to win the Big Sky Tournament.”
The Vandals struggled as both teams fought for the lead. The opening half of the game held nine of the 14 lead changes throughout the game. A good layup from junior forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan kick-started the game scoring to give Idaho an early two-point lead. But it didn’t last long.
The lead was quickly stolen by Southern Utah just a minute later. It continued to go back and forth for the remainder of the half until another layup from Mkrtychyan tied the game at 25-25, with a little more than two minutes left to play.
Junior guard Victor Sanders pushed the Vandals up with a clean three-point shot to go ahead 28-25. Idaho was able to hold on to finish the half with a 37-29 advantage.
Mkrtychyan finished with the bulk of the Idaho offense with 11 points and two rebounds.
Verlin said the defense stepped up to pull off the win.
“I thought our defense finally wore them down,”Verlin said. “We played a defense we hadn’t seen in a while, I thought that kind of threw us out of our rhythm a little bit, but … we didn’t lose our defense. They had a couple of seniors step up and make some big shots, but I thought our defense was solid tonight, to say the least.”
Idaho held control for the majority of the second half but then Southern Utah took over just five minutes into the half. The score continued to bounce back and forth before a 7-0 Vandal run half-way through the final 20 minutes to reclaim the top spot. Idaho fought through the rest of the game, expanding the advantage to as many as 16 points.
The Thunderbirds pulled it within nine points but were not able to recover allowing the Vandals to finish the game with a win.
Sanders lead the charge with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Following the win in Utah, Sanders becomes the 12th all-time scorer in program history with a total of 1148 points.
Mkrtychyan had a career night with 21 points for a new record and eight total rebounds. Junior guard Chad Sherwood rounded out the double-digit club with 13 points on the game.
Verlin said Mkrtychyan performed a great game with some assistance from his teammates.
“Great game for Ark. We knew he had to be really good tonight. Our guys did a good job of getting the ball down low to him. I thought Ark did a very nice job of scoring the basketball, no question about it.”
Vandals begin the Big Sky Tournament against Montana Thursday in Reno.
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at email@example.com