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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Healthy Vandals aiming for Big Sky tournament title, but first must get past EWU

Vandals defenders try to slow down a drive by Eagles’ Bogdan Bliznyuk in a late-January EWU win. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Sean Kramer Correspondent

By some accounts, the play happened just as then-Idaho coach Kermit Davis drew it up. The Vandals’ Ricardo Boyd caught the inbounds pass to the left of the 3-point circle and let it fly as the buzzer went off.

The ensuing swish meant a second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the Inland Northwest bully.

Idaho defeated Eastern Washington 65-62 in the 1990 Big Sky tournament final, one of the 22 consecutive wins the Vandals had on their rivals from Cheney.

Ahead of the two schools meeting tonight in the Big Sky Tournament at 8:05 p.m. at the Reno Events Center, current Eagles head coach Jim Hayford is aware of the history.

“Historically, Eastern hasn’t held up their end,” Hayford said. “Now we’re meeting in the conference tournament for a second year in a row. I think it’s good for the conference, it’s good for Eastern and it’s good for Idaho.”

Eastern Washington earned a sixth meeting with Idaho in two seasons with a 74-52 win over Northern Arizona on Tuesday night.

Despite winning four of the last five, No. 3-seeded Idaho should be considered the favorite over their sixth-seeded Inland Northwest travel partners.

But tournament success? That’s eluded Idaho under eighth-year coach Don Verlin. The Eagles sent Idaho home with a 91-83 quarterfinal win in Missoula last season. Idaho has six first-round exits surrounding a surprise run to the Western Athletic Conference tournament final in 2014.

A healthy Vandals team could be dangerous. Idaho played nine conference contests without starting point guard Perrion Callandret due to a sprained right foot, eight contests without leading scorer and shooting guard Victor Sanders and six games without both of them – still finishing 12-6 in Big Sky play.

“I don’t know if we’re playing our best, yet. But we’re not far off of it. The thing I feel a lot more comfortable with is we’re almost back to healthy,” Verlin said. “We’ve been good defensively and we’ve been pretty solid rebounding – that’s what we’re going to have to do in the tournament. We gotta sustain that for three nights.”

Idaho bit EWU 66-62 in Moscow on Feb. 27, the first conference triumph over Eastern since the Vandals left the Big Sky in 1996 for the Big West in the midst of football-driven realignment. Idaho’s packline matchup-zone defense held the Eagles to a very un-Eagle like 9-of-29 shooting performance from 3-point range. Conversely, EWU eviscerated Idaho from the 3-point line by shooting 51.7 percent from deep in a 74-60 win over the Vandals in Cheney.

The winner of this meeting gets the winner of the Montana/Sacramento State game in the semifinal.

“Our goal, for awhile, was not just 20 but 20-plus,” Sanders said. “The next goal is the Big Sky championship. I believe, everyone on this team believes – I think everyone at the University of Idaho believes that we can do it.”

His play could go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. The Vandals have won four of five games since the sophomore guard returned to the lineup from a broken right hand.

On the other side, EWU’s Austin McBroom thinks Venky Jois and Bogdan Bliznyuk in the post will tilt the odds.

“I think they have good guards, we have good guards,” McBroom said. “I think we have better bigs, though.”