RENO, Nev. – His Idaho coaches and teammates knew it: Victor Sanders would make the big plays when it mattered most.
“It’s what he does – we see it every day in practice,” Vandals coach Don Verlin said Thursday, after his star point guard came alive in the final two minutes to put away Montana 81-77 in a Big Sky Conference quarterfinal at the Reno Events Center.
Not that Sanders didn’t make an impact for the first 38 minutes – he finished with 19 points and five assists – but another close encounter with the Grizzlies was decided by a little Sanders magic at both ends of the court.
With Idaho trailing 75-74 with 1 1/2 minutes left, Sanders was draped by Montana’s Bobby Moorehead on the baseline, yet managed to slither under the defender and hit an impossible floater.
As it turned out, that gave Idaho the lead for good, but Sanders wasn’t done. Trapped under the basket after Montana made two foul shots, he somehow eluded two Griz defenders, barely beat the 10-second clock and put up another floater with 48 seconds left.
Twice more Montana closed to within a point, but Sanders hit a single free throw with 7 seconds left, then blocked Walter Wright’s shot 4 seconds later.
Colfax product Brandon Gfeller got the offensive board, but missed a jumper, and the Vandals’ Trevon Allen closed out the Griz with two free throws to earn a semifinal date Friday night with top-seeded North Dakota.
The win also offered some payback for last year’s semifinal loss to the Griz.
“Just that motivation alone was enough,” Idaho’s Pat Ingram said after the game.
Until the last 2 minutes, Montana’s speed matched Idaho’s inside game in one of the best games of the tournament so far.
After leading most of the way, fourth-seeded Idaho (18-12) struggled in the second half against the speedy Griz backcourt.
Idaho forward Arkady Mkrtychyan – who was 8 for 10 from the field – got two of his 19 points on a layin that put the Vandals up 50-41 early in the second half.
But Montana senior guard Walter Wright came off the bench to score a game-high 22 points and shoot the Grizzlies (16-16) back in the game.
“I though Montana did a really nice job of pressuring us,” Verlin said.
The Vandals did almost everything right early in the first half against a Montana defense that gave Sanders few touches after his first pass from the point in the half-court offense.
The Vandals hit eight of their first nine shots, including four by Mkrtychyan, who found some easy buckets underneath against Sayeed Pritchett.
It was feast or famine at the other end in the first half, as Montana shot a respectable 44 percent from the field but endured one scoreless drought of almost 5 minutes and another for almost 3.
The Grizzlies led 16-15, but Idaho went on a 10-0 run to take charge.
Midway through the half, Idaho got three steals in barely a minute. The Vandals cashed in all three, one for a thunderous slam from Brayon Blake.
Montana guard Walter Wright came off the bench with 11 points to cut the deficit to four before Blake’s 3-pointer gave Idaho a 41-34 halftime lead.
Idaho shot 17 for 26 from the field in the first half.
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