MOSCOW, Idaho – Late in Saturday night’s game, Idaho guard Pat Ingram flew into a crowded spot on the floor and came away with the loose ball on defense.
Before he stood up, he shot a pass up the court to teammate BJ Blake, who realized he had a defender trailing him as he was flying to the hoop.
No matter. Blake hesitated for a fraction of a second before thundering home a dunk with the Sacramento State player plastered to his back.
Blake’s strong slam and ensuing free throw helped secure an 81-67 triumph over the Hornets and also illustrated a point.
The Vandals are at their best – as they have been for most of the last month – when they feed off their defense.
“We’re a defensive, rebounding team,” guard Vic Sanders said. “And that’s what we pride ourselves every day in practice. Every day we (concern ourselves) about defense. That’s what we try to focus on because we know our offense will come. Defense translates to offense.”
The last two games, the offense has come in droves for Sanders.
Two nights after scoring a career-high 40 points, the junior point guard from Portland put up 31 and six assists and became the 16th player in UI history to reach the 1,000-point mark.
With a month left in the regular season, the Vandals (12-10, 7-4) find themselves alone in fourth place in the Big Sky. They’ve won six of seven games and look totally different than the club that started 1-3 in the conference.
Aside from discovering its identity, Idaho is getting consistent offense from other players than the superb Sanders. It just happens to be different players depending on the night.
Junior post Arkadiy Mkrtychyan scored the Vandals’ first 10 points of the game, all on strong moves in the paint over 6-foot-11 Eric Stuteville. He finished with 15 points to go along with Ingram’s 12 points and Blake’s 11.
Their contributions came after guard Chad Sherwood erupted for a career-high 23 points in Thursday night’s win over Portland State.
“It’s obviously going to make us harder to guard,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said about other players than Sanders having big scoring nights. “And it’s good to see those other guys step it up. It’s good to see their hard work paying off.”
Playing in front of 1,629 at Cowan Spectrum, the largest crowd of the season, the Vandals hit their first nine shots of game to race to a 20-6 lead. They were 15 of 18 from the field inside the 5-minute mark of the first half.
But they ended the half 0 for 7 while the Hornets mounted a 15-1 run to trim UI’s lead to 38-33 at the break.
Sanders had four of Idaho’s seven turnovers before halftime while operating against the Hornet’s sometimes full-court pressure. But he played a clean second half and Idaho finished with 10 turnovers.
Asked about the key to separating against the Hornets in the last 10 minutes, Sanders said, “Definitely just handling their pressure.”
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