MOSCOW, Idaho – With the, at the time, Big Sky’s top team visiting the Cowan Spectrum on Saturday, most saw a title-contending team looking to take advantage of Eastern Washington’s loss hours earlier.
Idaho coach Don Verlin saw opportunity through challenge, an opportunity his Vandals seized in a 69-58 win over Sacramento State.
Verlin saw an opportunity for his senior point guard to contain the Sacramento State guard who scored 32 points on the Vandals in their last meeting.
Mike Scott excelled, holding the Hornets’ Mikh McKinney to 15 points on 15 attempts from the field.
Verlin saw an opportunity for his post players to dominate the post through sheer force and athleticism.
Freshman Arkadiy Mkrtychyan heeded the call there, using aggression and athleticism to gobble up five offensive rebounds.
But most of all Verlin saw an opportunity for Idaho to prove it can play with anybody in the Big Sky Conference, which Idaho may have done by relegating Sac State (16-8, 10-3) back to second place behind the Eagles.
“I think this helps. I think we can play with anybody in the conference,” Verlin said. “I think this conference is really even.”
The Vandals (11-12, 6-6 Big Sky) came close in three previous meetings with the two Big Sky leaders, all three-point losses. Idaho missed a 3-point shot at the final buzzer in a 79-76 Jan. 15 loss in Sacramento State and in both losses to Eastern Washington.
But close losses don’t make statements. Wins do.
“We know what we did down there (in Sacramento),” senior guard Connor Hill said. “We played them tough, we should’ve won that. We felt like next time we saw them that we were going to get them, it was a circle game for us. It was great.”
Hill, who only shot 3 of 10 from the field, made his last shot count.
Leading by one with under four minutes remaining, Hill missed from the left wing. Bira Seck collected the rebound and kicked it back out to the Post Falls-native who handn’t moved an inch. This time he nailed it, putting Idaho ahead 59-55 and pushing the Vandals toward victory in their final game of the season at Cowan Spectrum.
Having missed five 3-pointers prior to that, “I’m glad that one went down,” he said.
Hill’s lead-extending 3 was sandwiched between points created by Mkrtychyan offensive boards. The Moscow, Russia-native known as “Ark” broke a 55-all tie when he split a pair of free throws after getting fouled collecting a Sekou Wiggs miss.
Wiggs was the recipient of Mkrtychyan-gifted second-chance points out of a timeout with under three minutes left, collecting a Scott assist and laying it up to put Idaho up 61-56.
Mkrtychyan victimized Sacramento State’s 6-foot-11, 250 pound sophomore Eric Stuteville all night.
“I just had a great feeling before the game,” he said. “ … I just tried to outthink him because he’s not quicker than me. I just try to make a move and make a basket.”
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