RENO, Nevada – After two narrow wins against the 10th-place team in the Big Sky Conference, surely the Idaho Vandals would take care of business when it mattered most.
Instead, they repeated the same mistakes and made some new ones, and it cost the Vandals dearly.
In the biggest upset of the Big Sky Tournament, 10th-seeded Southern Utah found its shooting touch early and often to beat the second-seeded Vandals 92-78 in Thursday’s quarterfinals at the Reno Events Center.
Southern Utah launched 18 3-point shots and connected on 11 to advance to the tournament semifinals for the first time in school history.
Struggling to contain the Thunderbird shooters, Idaho chose to foul. Southern Utah went to the line 32 times and made 27 attempts.
“It wasn’t our best night defensively,” said Idaho coach Don Verlin, whose club beat the T-Birds 78-76 on Senior Day last week in Moscow.
One of the top defensive teams in the conference, the Vandals struggled to contain Southern Utah’s drive game.
“They hit tough shots,” Idaho senior Victor Sanders said. “It’s not like we weren’t trying. It’s something that’s just not meant to be, but as a senior I have no regrets.”
Neither did the men on either side of Sanders in the postgame press conference, Verlin and fellow senior Brayon Blake.
“The toughest thing is that I don’t get to coach these guys anymore,” Verlin said of a senior class that also includes Perrion Callandret, Chad Sherwood, Arkadiy Mkrtychyan and Jordan Scott.
Verlin may get one more chance. At 22-8, the Vandals are an attractive team for the NIT or CBI.
“We’ll have a team meeting, and if that’s what my seniors want, then I’ll try like crazy to get them into one of those postseason tournaments,” Verlin said.
It won’t be the NCAAs, thanks to a remarkable shooting night by the Thunderbirds. Southern Utah, which finished 5-13 in the Big Sky and upset Idaho State on Tuesday to get this far, was the better team on Thursday.
Guards Jadon Cohee and Brandon Better did most of the damage, combining for eight 3-pointers and 47 points.
Southern Utah (12-18) was the aggressor from the opening tip. The Thunderbirds led for most of the half, shooting 57 percent from the field and 6 for 10 from outside the arc.
Cohee and Better combined for 23 first-half points while backup post Christian Musoko had five rebounds.
Down 30-19, Verlin called timeout and ordered a three-quarter trap that sped up the game and took the Thunderbirds out of their comfort zone.
Sanders picked up his second foul 3:40 left in the half. Trevon Allen filled the void, hitting two 3-pointers in the last 65 seconds, the last one at the buzzer to put the Vandals up by one.
That momentum lasted all of 3 minutes.
Chad Sherwood’s 3-pointer gave the Vandals a 49-all tie, but Southern Utah pulled away from there.
The Vandals trailed by nine after Sanders hit two foul shots with 6 minutes left, but Nate Sherwood fouled Better on a 3-pointer a few seconds later.
Better made all three, and Southern Utah led by double digits the rest of the way.
Blake led Idaho with 27 points and 12 rebounds, both game-highs, and was 11 for 18 from the field.
The rest of the Vandals were 17 for 44, or 38 percent.