RENO, Nevada – As it has all season, Idaho’s defense carried it to a big win Thursday night.
The Vandals held defending champion Eastern Washington to 36-percent shooting from the field on the way to a 77-73 victory in a Big Sky Conference quarterfinal game at the Reno Events Center.
“They (Eastern) are really hard to guard, but these two guys played a great game for us,” Idaho coach DonVerlin said, gesturing to guard Victor Sanders and forward Nate Sherwood.
While Sherwood held his own in the middle, Sanders led a fierce perimeter defense that held Eastern to 28 percent from beyond the arc and held point guard Austin McBroom without a field goal.
“We made him work hard for his points,” said Sanders, who overcame some second-half foul trouble in the process. “He’s averaging 21 points, and you want to take away any team’s focal point.”
Sanders and Sherwood weren’t bad at the other end, combining for 36 points. Working against the Eagles’ Venky Jois, Sherwood was 9 for 10 from the field.
The reward – besides payback for a quarterfinal loss to Eastern last year – is a date with second-seeded Montana in Friday night’s semifinals. The Griz dispatched Sacramento State 70-53 earlier Thursday night.
Despite the staunch defense, Idaho didn’t put away the Eagles until guard Perrion Callandret hit a free throw with 10.8 seconds left to give the Vandals (21-11) a four-point lead.
The game was an uphill struggle all night for Eastern (17-15), which never got untracked from 3-point range against the Vandals’ 2-3 zone.
The Eagles were 9 for 32 from 3-point range, while McBroom was 0 for 10 from the field and 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. McBroom finished with 12 points, all from the free-throw line.
“We feel like we are a lot better shooting team than we showed, but I feel like we need to credit the other’s team defense,” said EWU coach Jim Hayford, who also sprang a surprise with the announcement that the Eagles will live to play again.
Without going into details, Hayford said Eastern will host a postseason game – presumably in the CBI – next week.
“At the right time, we’ll figure out when the announcement gets made,” Hayford said.
But only the Vandals are in the hunt for the NCAA berth that Eastern claimed last year at Idaho’s expense. “Last year was a sour feeling,” Sanders said. “It’s just payback and it’s good to get that win.”
Moments later, Sanders talked about his passion for the game, especially on defense. “That’s what our team is about – defense.”
Idaho’s physicality “is just part of the game,” said Eastern forward Felix Von Hofe, who scored 17 points but was just 4 for 12 from 3-point range. “It was a very physical game and we showed up a little late to the physical fight.”
Eastern never led in the second half, but cut the Idaho lead to 66-65 on a 3 from VonHofe, but Chris Sarbaugh and Pat Ingram responded with buckets for the Vandals.
The lead was down to 3 after another Eagle 3-pointer from Bogdan Bliznyuk with 2:02 left, but Sanders drained two free throws and Callandret one more to push the lead to six with 33 seconds left.
Von Hofe struck one last time, draining a 3 to make it 76-73 with 16 seconds left, but Callandret made the second of two foul shots to ice the game.
The Eagles found it tough going early against Idaho’s zone. They missed their first four shots from beyond the arc; by then, Idaho led 14-9.
The Vandals also thrived in transition, as Ingram scored on back-to-back fastbreak layins. Ingram added two free throws to give Idaho a 31-25 lead – its biggest to that point – with 5:47 left in the half.
“That was Pat’s best game as an Idaho Vandal,” Verlin said of Ingram, who finished with 12 points.
The lead grew to 37-27 after Arkadiy Mkrtychyan made a layup with 3:34 left, but he was called for a technical after some post-bucket jawing with the Eagles.
That’s when Eastern began to make headway at the free-throw line, scoring six of its last 10 points of the half after Idaho fouls. The Eagles finished 22 for 27 from the foul line.
The Vandals also dominated on the boards in the first half, 22 to 13, but forced only one Eagle turnover.
Montana 70, Sacramento 53: Martin Breunig scored 24 points and grabbed 16 rebounds and the second-seeded Grizzlies (20-10) defeated the No. 10 seed Hornets (14-17) in a quarterfinal matchup.
Breunig posted his 13th double-double of the season.
North Dakota 83, Idaho State 49: Drick Bernstine scored 14 points with a career-high 21 rebounds and the fifth-seeded Fighting Hawks (17-14) crushed the fourth-seeded Bengals (16-15) in a quarterfinal matchup.
The Fighting Hawks (17-14) will face Weber State in the semis Friday.
Weber State 78, Portland State 74: Ryan Richardson scored 21 and the top-seeded Wildcats (24-8) edged the No. 8 Vikings (13-18) in a quarterfinal tilt.
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