MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho was the preseason pick to win the Big Sky Conference, and in a 66-64 victory over Eastern Washington Friday, the Vandals outplayed the Eagles – barely.
“What a game,” Vandals coach Don Verlin said. “Twenty lead changes. Both teams were well prepared.”
With EWU clinging to a 64-63 lead in the final minute, Idaho’s Perrion Callandret inbounded a lob to Brayon Blake in the lane. Blake fought through the Eagles’ Bogdan Bliznyuk’s attempted block to score and put the Vandals ahead.
“That was a great call from coach,” Blake said. “We knew I was going to get open.”
The Eagles tried to answer. Sir Washington brought the ball up against Idaho’s defense. With 12.8 seconds to play, Sanders fouled Washington as he drove to the basket.
Washington’s first free throw hung on the front of the rim and fell off. A large, boisterous Idaho crowd roared. Washington motioned for them to yell even louder and released his second shot. It bounced off the left side of the iron, and Sanders rebounded. Sanders was fouled by EWU’s Ty Gibson and hit 1 of 2 free throws, which established the final score.
Before the game was over, though, Bliznyuk got one final drive. Blake, Sanders and Nate Sherwood converged on him and Blake blocked Bliznyuk’s layup with 6 seconds to go. Callandret rebounded and was fouled. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1 second to play. Bliznyuk rebounded, but his three-quarter-court heave fell well short.
“It was a great game, and I have to give credit to Idaho,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “They played terrific and very tough, and they made plays when they needed to. We came up one play too short. It was a great game and a lot of fun.”
It was also a game in which both Idaho and EWU’s stellar scorers took supporting roles. Sanders, the Vandals’ second all-time scorer, dealt nine assists and grabbed eight rebounds but scored only eight points. Bliznyuk, the Eagles’ career scoring leader, hit for 16 points. However, he made only 1 of 5 3-point attempts.
“We felt his strength was driving himself to the basket and getting to the line,” Verlin said of his approach to guarding Bliznyuk.
But with Blake, Sherwood and Jordan Scott providing active help defense, Verlin said, “We did a good job of making him have to make second and third moves.”
The Eagles took Sanders away from the Vandals by devoting a second defender to him, according to Verlin. Sanders responded by rebounding and assisting.
“He did a good job of finding his game. I told him to go make basketball plays and he did,” Verlin said.
Sherwood came up huge for Idaho in the second half. He led all scorers with 23 points, and he scored eight of those and remained strong on defense after picking up his fourth foul with just less than 8 minutes to play. Verlin said he never contemplated taking Sherwood out of the game.
Getting Sherwood to become a more aggressive scorer has been a work in progress, Verlin said. It paid off against the Eagles. For his part, Sherwood said “it happened to be me tonight,” but he deflected the spotlight to his teammates. “We’re 15 strong.”
Indicative of the tenacious defense both teams played, EWU had a pair of shot clock violations, and Idaho one. EWU shot 40.7 percent from the floor in both periods, though, while the Vandals struggled in the first half, hitting just 10 of 31 shots before recovering to hit 15 of 32 after the break.
The biggest flaw in Idaho’s game was free throws. It made just 6 of 14 while the Eagles made 9 of 11. The Eagles led 29-26 at the half.
Idaho improved to 17-7, 9-3 in the Big Sky. EWU slipped below .500 at 12-13, but is 7-5 in the league.