Idaho came out strong in its opening game of the Big Sky Conference tournament and held off the Montana Grizzlies to win 81-77 and seal a ticket to the semifinals.
Idaho head coach Don Verlin said his team played with a lot of spirit while getting the tough win.
“I thought our guys played extremely hard tonight, with a lot of heart,” Verlin said. “Pat coming up with those big offensive rebounds. The gameplan was to go down low early and I thought Ark delivered early. Time and time again. I thought Montana did a really nice job of pressuring us and not allowing us to get it down there that easily.”
Idaho came out hot, kicking off the scoring just seconds into the game with a jumper from junior forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan. Both teams came out fighting, taking turns stealing the lead. There were seven lead changes in the opening half.
A pair of freebies from junior guard Victor Sanders five minutes in brought the Vandals within one point before a jumper from junior forward Brayon Blake reclaimed the Idaho lead. The Vandals held on to the advantage, extending it to 12 points before the break.
Idaho performed well in the opening half. The Vandals hit 9-10 of their first field goal attempts, 5-5 from Mkrtychyan who powered the offense in the opening 20 minutes with 12 points.
The silver-and-gold came out hot, finishing the first half 65.4 percent from the floor and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc.
The second half was a little closer for the Vandals. The opponents brought the game within four points in the first possession of the final half. The score flipped back and forth as each team continued to make baskets.
Montana went on a 5-0 run to cut the Idaho lead back down to two points with 10 minutes. Idaho grabbed the lead back and held it for the remainder of the game but Montana came close to pulling the upset. A few missed shots from the opponents and clutch free throws by Sanders and freshman guard Trevon Allen sealed the win for the Vandals.
The win was a team effort with five Vandal players scoring in double-digits. Sanders and Mkrtychyan finished with nearly identical stats, each with 19 points and four rebounds. Blake came in with 12 points and five rebounds. Sophomore power forward Nate Sherwood and senior point guard Pat Ingram rounded out the top scorers with 10 points each.
Idaho finished 54.9 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from deep.
Verlin said the team has been working on fighting through games to get the win.
“One thing we’ve been working on all year long is sustaining our intensity and playing to the final horn, no matter what it is. I thought our guys did that tonight.”
Idaho moved on to the semifinals to face No. 1 seed North Dakota 5:35 p.m. Friday in Reno.
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org