RENO, Nev. – All that uphill running finally took a toll on Idaho.
The Vandals played some sublime basketball Friday night, but couldn’t sustain the pace at the end of a 69-64 loss to North Dakota in the Big Sky Conference semifinals.
The bottom line: Idaho couldn’t start and couldn’t finish against the top-seeded Fighting Hawks, who on Saturday will try to add a tournament title to the regular-season crown they won last week.
“It’s tough when it comes to an end,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said of the Vandals’ NCAA Tournament hopes but not the season itself.
Asked if his 18-13 team will accept a postseason bid if it’s offered, Verlin didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said as Victor Sanders and Jordan Scott nodded in the postgame interview.
That was the cup-half-full attitude Verlin saw all year despite the early loss of point guard Perrion Callandret and the 1-3 start to conference play.
“I’ve got some good men in my locker room, with a lot of character,” Verlin said.
That character was tested early by North Dakota, which led by as many as 17 points in the first half. Idaho rallied and even led by six midway through the first half to set up a thrilling finish.
But in a game full of runs, North Dakota made the one that mattered.
With two minutes left and the score tied at 63, the Vandals’ Trevon Allen was called for a blocking foul and Geno Crandall converted both free throws.
After Victor Sanders missed a turnaround jumper at the other end with 1:28 left, North Dakota found Corey Baldwin deep in the right corner.
Baldwin delivered a 3-point shot with 1:04 to play, while Idaho’s Arkadiy Mkrtychyan missed two foul shots at the other end.
Fouled again after a North Dakota turnover, Mkrtychyan was 1-for-2 with 19 seconds left.
North Dakota’s Drick Bernstine iced the game with 11 seconds left with a free throw to make it 69-64.
“When it comes to an end, it’s not pretty,” said Sanders, who finished with a game-high 20 points despite sitting with two early fouls.
Early in the game, the Fighting Hawks threatened to blow out Idaho the way they did Portland State in the quarterfinals.
Pushing the pace and getting great ball movement in its half-court offense, North Dakota throttled the Vandal zone defense for leads of 10-2 and 24-7 before Idaho found its footing.
His team trailing 26-9 midway through the half, Verlin called timeout.
It paid off, as the Vandals held UND to 4-for-13 shooting the rest of the half. They also controlled the boards, 15 to 8, during that span.
“We just needed to do what we do, just do it better,” Verlin explained.
The UND lead was down to 37-31 at haltime, and Idaho came all the way back to take a 50-44 lead on Allen’s layup with 12:02 left. However, the Fighting Hawks (21-9) answered with a 15-1 run of its ow.
Allen was the only other Vandal in double figures, with 10 points. Nate Sherwood had 11 rebounds for the Vandals.
Crandall and Baldwin had 16 points each for UND, and Quinton Hooker had 13 points and five assist
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