MOSCOW, Idaho – We know the rejuvenated Idaho Vandals can handle the Big Sky’s bottomfeeders. They proved that again on Saturday night in a 65-49 dismissal of last-place Northern Arizona.
But after regaining their footing, especially defensively, the Vandals must show they can topple the conference’s top-tier teams.
Their next road trip will give them a chance to do just that.
BJ Blake had a career-high 18 points, Vic Sanders had 17 and Idaho squeezed the life out of undermanned NAU with 1,323 watching at Cowan Spectrum.
The Vandals (9-9, 4-3 Big Sky) outscored the Lumberjacks 16-2 during the game’s key stretch and held Northern Arizona (4-16, 1-6) to 31.5 percent from the field and 15 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
Idaho, winners of three straight and four of the last five, plays at Montana State on Thursday and at Montana on Saturday. Despite two straight road losses, the Grizzlies are one half-game ahead of the Vandals in the conference standings at 5-3. And they soundly beat the Vandals in Moscow on Jan. 7.
“We want to get to the top, so we know what we’ve got to do,” said Blake, a transfer from North Idaho College. “These three wins back-to-back, they mean a lot to us, but we’ve got Montana and Montana State next on the road. Those are two big games that we want.”
The Vandals have returned to sound defense and rebounding, the two things that coach Don Verlin said this team should do best. They suffocated the Lumberjacks on defense, who were without leading scorer Mike Green. NAU managed just two field goals in the game’s last 10 minutes.
“It was really good tonight,” Verlin said of Idaho’s defense. “I thought we were really active. I thought our guys executed their game plan very well.”
Blake and guard Pat Ingram (nine points, three assists) gave the Vandals a shot of energy off the bench. Idaho’s reserves outscored NAU’s 35-5, most of that coming from the two JuCo transfers.
Blake, a 6-foot-7 junior from Seattle, has rebounded from a back injury and what Verlin labeled personal issues, including the death of his brother, that sent him into a tailspin in December.
He also took some time to adjust to Verlin’s system, but Blake remarked, “I am starting to feel a lot (more) comfortable.”
Blake and his teammates responded in the second half after Sanders almost got into an altercation with NAU guard JoJo Anderson. Moments after Sanders was elbowed by Anderson, Sanders brushed Anderson’s body and the two were separated by officials.
Verlin had to calm Sanders, his leading scorer, on the sideline.
“I’d rather have to settle a guy down every once in a while then charge him up,” Verlin said. “He got a little fired up, but I thought he handled himself well. But that’s a good thing. I mean, that’s what this team needs. I like that stuff.”
Sanders and Anderson jawed as the teams headed to the locker room for halftime and during second-half warmups. Even Blake and other Idaho players started talking toward Anderson’s direction.
“That just shows you our team,” Blake said. “We’re here for each other, 15 strong.”
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