Did a win Saturday night technically matter? No.
Prior to tip, Idaho and Southern Utah had already locked the second and No. 10 spots in next week’s Big Sky Tournament, respectively.
Roughly speaking however, it meant a lot.
Playing without and for senior guard Perrion Callandret — who will miss the remainder of the year due to a broken knee cap suffered Feb. 22 at Idaho State — the Vandals got gutsy, as if they were on the outside, looking in, and edged the Thunderbirds 78-76 on senior night in Cowan Spectrum.
“These six guys have been very special to this program; very special to me personally,” Idaho Head Coach Don Verlin said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room before the game, as you might expect, but I thought our guys did a good job refocusing their energy…”
Along with a supplementary self-confidence boost, Idaho (22-9, BSC 14-4) secured the program’s most wins since it logged 24 in 1992-93, Vandal legend Orland Lightfoot’s junior year.
Fittingly, Idaho’s key performances came from two of its longtime contributors, seniors Victor Sanders and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, but a second-year man who’s effectively blended into the mold ended up making the difference.
Former North Idaho Cardinal and current senior forward Brayon Blake logged his 11th double-double of the season with 24 points and 11 boards; he also hit the game winner.
SUU guard James McGee canned a triple with 11 ticks on the clock to knot it up at 76-all. Sanders took the inbound and trotted down the court. As he had successfully done six times before, Sanders launched a deep triple, but it clanked off the rim. Blake arose from a horde of SUU defenders, collected the rebound, spun and netted a game-clinching mid-range jumper.
“As a leader on the team, I’ve just got to do something, I can never give up until the last buzzer,” Blake said. “I just knew I could get a rebound, and if I throw it up, it’s going in…It’s a perfect way to end this night.”
Sanders, while wearing Callandret’s No. 1 jersey, led all scorers with 28 points. He also dished out a game-high four assists. For the first nearly eight minutes of the second half, Sanders and Blake were the scoring catalysts for Idaho.
Sanders knocked in three of his six 3-pointers in that span, often staring down the basket before and after pulling up from several feet behind the arc. Blake added a dunk and a 3 of his own, and just like that, the Vandals owned a 12-point advantage and looked to be pulling away.
Southern Utah (11-18, BSC 5-13) had a grit-fueled agenda of its own, however. With nothing to lose, the Thunderbirds refused to succumb to Idaho flurries and consistently quieted the crowd.
A 17-1 SUU run midway through the period culminated in a six-point lead for the visitors, their largest.
“I thought our guys played through. The road’s always hard to win in this league,” SUU coach Todd Simon said. “I was proud of our guys, we had some guys step up…We’re learning how to win.”
Blake scored 13 points in the final six minutes, often maneuvering his way through Thunderbird posts and finding success at the stripe. With 21 seconds left, he was ripped down from behind, a flagrant foul, on a breakaway dunk attempt. The Cowan Spectrum fell silent as Blake sat in agony on the baseline, but a few moments later, the alarming scene would be forgotten.
Before Blake and Sanders went off for 21 and 17 respectively in the second, Idaho leaned heavily on post-play from arguably the team’s most experienced senior in Mkrtychyan.
The Armenian National Team forward’s family had traveled from abroad to witness their relative’s final performance for the Vandals — Mkrtychyan did not disappoint.
He recorded 13 of his 15 points, a season-high, and all seven of his rebounds in the first.
A 10-0 Idaho run over three minutes did little to suppress the Thunderbirds. Almost immediately proceeding, SUU sprung out to a 15-2 run of its own, capitalizing on exceptional foul-drawing post defense.
Mkrtychyan provided much-needed life to Idaho down the first-half stretch. The run jolted the Thunderbirds out to a four-point advantage, but Mkrtychyan banged in eight points in the last seven minutes on post-up turnarounds and and-ones, thrusting Idaho to a seven-point halftime lead.
SUU featured four players in double-figures. McGee finished with 18, forward Jamal Aytes chipped in 17, forward Dwayne Morgan contributed 12 and guard Brandon Better led SUU with 21.
Both teams shot just under 52 percent from the field, but Idaho found ways to get to the charity-stripe and hit 13 freebies compared to just five for SUU.
The Vandals were matched or bettered on the boards for just the third time in conference play this season. Both teams collected 29 rebounds.
It was all smiles coupled with plenty of water-works pregame. Idaho’s six seniors lined up at half-court, lifted their framed Idaho jerseys above their heads, and egged on an eager crowd.
Afterwards, the emotion was nearly indistinguishable. What once were tears of wistfulness, though, morphed into ones of elation.
“Lot of tears,” Sanders said. “Over these four years, we’ve put everything we have into this…it’s powerful, it’s something you can’t forget.”
Idaho will await the winner of Tuesday’s contest between Idaho State and Southern Utah. The Vandals play the winner at 5:35 p.m. Thursday in Reno at the Big Sky Tournament.
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coltonclark95