The team that started the season as the pre-season Big Sky champs found itself unable to defeat the same opponent it had already taken down twice.
Idaho pushed past Southern Utah twice in the regular season, including its last game just five days ago, but was unable to pull together a repeat performance, falling 92-78.
The first 10 minutes of the game stayed relatively close, with Southern Utah and Idaho swapping leads a handful of times before the Thunderbirds took control, going on an 8-0 run over nearly two minutes.
Southern Utah held a steady lead over Idaho for several minutes of the game before Idaho regrouped and went on an 8-0 run of their own.
Sophomore guard Trevon Allen capped off the run with a triple at the buzzer to return the lead to the Vandals.
Although Idaho managed to play some catch up, Southern Utah dominated the first half. The Thunderbirds went into the break shooting over 57 percent (12-21) from field goal range and 60 percent (6-10) from beyond the arc. Southern Utah took advantage from trips to the free throw line, converting 10-11 attempts, compared to just 3-4 for the Vandals.
Any other night, Idaho’s first half performance would be considered a relatively strong shooting night. The Vandals hit almost 52 percent (16-31) from the floor and 37.5 percent (6-16) from 3-point range.
The second half looked a lot like the first, but instead of coming from behind off hot shooting, Southern Utah took advantage of a spotty Idaho defense and took control of the game, leaving the No. 2 seed in its dust.
It was a four-point game with 8:27 left to play, but a 15-7 run carried Southern Utah to a 12-point advantage with five and a half to go.
Southern Utah continued to get shots to fall as Idaho slowly deflated, missing free throws and forcing shots that just wouldn’t fall until the clock timed out and the No. 10 seeded Southern Utah walked away with a 92-78 victory.
“They just hit tough shots,” senior guard Victor Sanders said. “They shot 60 percent on the game, three and two, they just had balls going in. It’s not like we weren’t trying, or we weren’t giving it effort or we didn’t stick with our game plan. We did what we were coached to do and sometimes it’s just not meant to be. As a senior I have no regrets, four years I’ve given it everything I’ve got.”
By the end of the contest, there were few categories on paper not dominated by the Thunderbirds.
Idaho’s usual scorers made their normal contributions. Senior forward Brayon Blake finished the night leading the team in scoring with 27 points and 11 rebounds.
Sanders notched 19 points in 29 minutes of play.
Allen played a good number of minutes for the Vandals, stepping up to contribute 11 points in 25 minutes.
The first half may have looked good for the Vandals on paper, but the second half was another story. Idaho shot nearly 39 percent (12-31) from the floor and just 25 percent (3-12) from beyond the arc.
The Southern Utah bench made more than their fair share of contributions, putting up 34 points compared to just 18 from the Idaho sideline.
Despite the loss, Idaho Head Coach Don Verlin said in a news release the loss itself is not the biggest loss of the night.
“I don’t get to coach these guys anymore,” Verlin said. “I’ve had six great seniors who’ve put a great foot print on Vandal basketball, who’ve come to work every day for three, four, five years or whatever it may be. That is the hardest thing I have to swallow tonight is I don’t get to coach them anymore and that’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Idaho will await the end of conference tournaments to see if there will be a chance to carry on the season in another tournament.
“We came out and we had a great season this season, we left a legacy at U of I for the young guys to come in,” Blake said. “To lose like that it definitely hurts, but we got to keep our head up as men and continue to fight and if we get invited to another tournament after this just continue to play hard until the last buzzer and try to win that tournament.
It is definitely a learning lesson for sure, but I left everything on the court, and my teammates as well, so there’s no regrets for it.”
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mere0415