MOSCOW – When Don Verlin accepted the Idaho men’s basketball coaching job in 2008, the Vandals had won 16 games the previous three seasons. He immediately infused life into the program – but until Saturday night, he had never gotten over the 20-win hump.
Which explains why Verlin entered the media room after an 82-68 victory over Idaho State with his hair still wet and a tiny bit disheveled after his players had splashed him with Gatorade and water in the locker room.
“That’s been our goal for a while – not just 20 (wins), but 20-plus,” Idaho sophomore guard Victor Sander said. “To get there, to do what we set out, to achieve a goal we set, it brings bright eyes. It brings a lot of … excitement that if we set our goal, we can go get it.
“Our next goal is the Big Sky championship, so I believe and I think everybody else at the University of Idaho believes we can do it.”
Idaho controlled the final 5 minutes of the back-and-forth game to secure its first 20-win season since 1993, much to the delight of a senior night crowd of 2,549 at Cowan Spectrum. It will open the Big Sky tournament on Thursday as the third seed.
Idaho State (16-14, 11-7) will be the fourth seed.
The Vandals (20-11, 12-6) have won three straight and six of their last seven heading into the postseason. They’ve also beaten Weber State, Montana and every other team in the top half of the league.
“I don’t know if we’re playing our best yet, but we’re not far off it,” Verlin said. “The thing I feel a lot more comfortable with is we’re almost back to healthy. I think we’ll have (Ty) Egbert back for the tournament. … So we’ll have the opportunity to play our best.”
Sanders scored 10 straight points for the Vandals to help them pull away in the critical moments of the second half. He punctuated his 25-point effort by burying a deep, off-balance 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to all but seal the victory with 1:35 left.
It was the second straight game that Sanders came up clutch late, and this time he was at least partly fueled by in-game chatter from Idaho State star guard Ethan Telfair.
Telfair, whose brother Sebastian was a first-round pick in the 2004 NBA draft, had 24 points and three steals. But when he tried to engage Sanders in conversation, Idaho’s leading scorer responded by carrying the Vandals offensively.
“(He was) trying to get any advantage he could,” UI senior Chris Sarbaugh said of Telfair. “But he didn’t realize it was having the opposite effect.”
Sarbaugh was one of three Idaho seniors honored before the game. The Gonzaga Prep product came to Idaho this season as a graduate transfer after playing at the University of San Diego and North Idaho College. He didn’t realize senior night – and the final stretch of his collegiate career – would be so emotional.
“Especially with the journey I’ve been on,” Sarbaugh said. “I’ve been to all these places, seen all these different players. I never really thought my time was going to end.”