Even without the style points, at the end of the night the only points that matter are the ones that determine the victor.
While it was not the most impressive victory of the season, the Idaho men’s basketball bounced back from a slow start to get a 66-52 win and secure the No. 2 seed moving toward the Big Sky tournament.
“We did a great job on the defensive end, but as a player, we know what we have to do and do better in order to be a championship level team, as coach preaches,” senior forward Brayon Blake said. “We turned over the ball way too much today and the pace on our offense was a little down but we can’t complain about a win.”
Scoring was slow and sparse in the first half. The ball traveled back and forth but neither team managed to sink the bucket.
Senior small forward Jordan Scott got the Vandals on the board with a 3-point shot nearly three minutes into the contest.
The Lumberjacks took their shots, but didn’t manage to find the basket until nearly four minutes into the game.
Both teams were on the board, yet each struggled early on to build any momentum. Five minutes into the contest Idaho hit two shots, while the Lumberjacks just one.
The Lumberjack’s Corey Brown sank a layup to give NAU its second made shot of the night, but the visitors still trailed 8-4.
As the first-half clock ticked down, the Lumberjacks began picking up speed. NAU pushed out on a 6-0 run in the final two minutes of the opening half while Idaho went on a two-minute scoring drought.
A successful trip to the line for NAU’s JoJo Anderson leveled the score at 20 points with just a minute and a half until the break.
It seemed that Idaho would hold the advantage into the halftime, but a long 3-ball at the buzzer from NAU’s Anderson bumped the visiting team ahead 25-24, its first lead of the night.
Luckily for the Vandals, Blake figured out how to get his shots to fall to keep Idaho in the game, even with slower production on Northern Arizona’s end. Blake headed into the break with 13 of Idaho’s 24 points and eight of its 22 rebounds, leading the team in both categories.
Idaho Head Coach Don Verlin said he attributes the slow start in part to the players overlooking the opponents as serious competition.
“It’s been our problem,” Verlin said. “At some point this team has to figure out that every game and every second of every game is important and it’s too late in the season to overlook.”
Whatever coach preached to the team in the locker room must have resonated with senior guard Victor Sanders. After only scoring three points in the entire first half, Sanders came out of the gate with five quick points, including a 3-ball to return the lead to Idaho less than three minutes into the second half.
The two teams swapped leads a handful of times before the Vandals picked up the pace and reminded everyone in the Cowan Spectrum why they are one of the best teams in the conference. Idaho ran over the Lumberjacks, rolling out on a 23-2 run over seven minutes to give itself a 64-41 advantage.
Northern Arizona Head Coach Jack Murphy said it is hard to win games with long scoring droughts against programs that like to score.
“You’re not going to beat Idaho or many ball clubs when you go eight minutes in a scoring drought. You have to put the ball in the basket, that is part of the game,” Murphy said.
With a 23-point cushion between Idaho and Northern Arizona, the crowd got a chance to see what may very well be the future of Idaho basketball. Scott was the only starter on the hardwoods in the closing minutes as freshman guards Geno West and Chance Garvin, freshman forward Scott Blakney and sophomore guard Trevon Allen closed out the game and secured the 66-52 victory.
“I like my freshman,” Verlin said. “Geno West is going to be a really good player here, I’ve said that before. Scott Blakney has a physical presence about him. I think those guys are going to be very good contributors as we move forward in this program.”
Despite a slow first half, Idaho picked up speed in the second after only shooting 32 percent from the floor and 11 percent from range. The Vandals hit over 46 percent from field goal range and almost 46 percent from beyond the arc to average around 40 percent from the floor and 30 percent from deep on the night. The home team’s six three’s bump the season record to 257, a program best.
If it was not Idaho’s greatest shooting night then the opponents certainly struggled. Northern Arizona finished the night hitting nearly 29 percent from field goal range and from deep.
Not unlike the first half, Blake finished the game leading the Vandals in both scoring and rebounds with 22 points, 14 boards, a tie for career-high, and three blocks. It was his 10th double-double of the year.
One of Idaho’s regular top-scorers had a quieter night thanks to some foul trouble. Sanders closed out the contest with 12 points and three assists, the only other Vandal in double digits.
Scott had just seven points in the contest but contributed 12 rebounds and three assists.
On Northern Arizona’s side, both Torry Johnson and Anderson led their team with 11 points, the only Lumberjacks to break into double digits.
The team that prides itself on outrebounding its opponents did just that. Idaho had 44 rebounds compared to just 31 from NAU.
Despite winning the battle of the rebounds, Idaho lost a major battle in turnovers, giving up 16 throughout the night.
Only one games stands between Idaho and the Big Sky tournament. After a Vandal win and a Weber State loss to Montana, Idaho is locked in at a No. 2 seed with a first-round bye.
Despite hoping for a Montana upset for the chance to sneak into the No. 1 position, Verlin said he is happy with Idaho’s position.
“There is only one seed to be better than two seed and that’s the one seed. We are happy to have that. We know whoever we draw in that first-round game on Thursday was going to be a good game and we’ll cross that bridge when the time comes.”
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mere0415