Don Verlin had to stop for a second and keep himself from getting choked up. The win — more importantly how Idaho won — was almost too much for him.
Idaho downed Montana 63-58 on Thursday night, the first time since 1999 the Vandals defeated the Grizzlies in Missoula.
Victor Sanders led the brilliant effort with 25 points which builds on a 33-point and 29-point effort the two games prior, and all without starting point guard Perrion Callandret.
Idaho trailed 24-22 at the half but went on a 22-6 run to start the second half and held on late in the second to escape with a huge road victory of the defending regular season conference champions.
"My guys showed their characters tonight," Verlin said. "I’m getting a little choked up because we fought, we battled. More importantly than anything, we fought. We sat down and executed the game plan. It’s nice to see us play like that because we all know we gave away one on Saturday."
That's fair to say. Idaho dropped an overtime contest at home to Southern Utah in a game that Ken Pomeroy gave Idaho an 87-percent chance of winning. Instead, Sanders fouled out in overtime with 29 points and watched from the bench as Idaho blew a six-point lead to split its first Big Sky Conference homestand.
Giving Montana its first conference loss brings Idaho to 12-7 overall and 4-2 in conference play with trips to Cheney to face Eastern Washington and Missoula already out of the way.
Idaho did this on defense.
Verlin admittedly knows his roster doesn't have the offensive firepower necessary to bully its way to an NCAA Tournament bid like their friends from Cheney, so that's why he won't stop pounding defense to his team.
Idaho came into conference play with the league's top Adjusted Defense rating per KenPom, but has sunk to fourth in the league in conference games.
"That’s what we have to do. We’re not the most talented offensive team in the conference by a long shot, but when we want to sit down and guard and fight we can beat anybody in this conference," Verlin said.
Accomplished in Missoula. Montana shot a putrid 32 percent from the field.
"I’ve been real disappointed with our defense in league play," Verlin said. "We haven’t been physical enough in the paint. (Tonight we were) doing what we’ve been coached to do. I thought the key to the game was keeping them out of the lane, I thought our big guys really battled Breunig all night long."
Sophomore forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan was also a scratch because of concerns over his knee, which he had surgery on prior to the season. Ty Egbert and Nate Sherwood received the start, along with Chad Sherwood, Victor Sanders and Chris Sarbaugh in the backcourt.
"We showed our character tonight. We were without two guys we started the year with thinking are going to be our two leading scorers and we didn’t have those guys," Verlin said.
Idaho travels to Bozeman, Montana on Saturday to face Post Falls native Marcus Colbert and Montana State. Colbert, the Bobcats' senior point guard who didn't receive an Idaho offer out of high school, leads the Big Sky in assist rate and is averaging 16.3 points per game on 43 percent shooting.
"It’s a great win. Hopefully, I’m going to tell you on Saturday after the game what this game means for us. We gave two away last Saturday and we can’t give two away if we’re going to compete for a conference title," Verlin said.