MOSCOW, Idaho – Basketball purists would find little to like in Idaho’s senior day rugged matchup with Southern Utah, marked by two Thunderbird flagrant fouls, four shot clock violations against them and Idaho surrendering a 10-point second-half lead.
But fans of a toe-to-toe brawl supercharged with melodrama loved it.
Brayon Blake, the victim of one of Southern Utah’s flagrant fouls when he was undercut by the smallest player on the floor, Dre Marin, with 18 seconds to play, was too shaken up to shoot the technical free throws – which teammate Nate Sherwood missed.
But with nine seconds remaining, Blake returned to the court with the score tied at 76. And when Victor Sanders’ long shot went wide, Blake went high for the rebound and put back a buzzer-beating jumper of his own to give the Vandals the 78-76 victory.
“As a leader of the team, I can never give up,” he said afterward. “I’ve got to do something. If I could get a rebound, I knew I could get a shot.”
Vandals coach Don Verlin said “that was a man’s rebound. He’s been rebounding well for us all year long. It’s fitting he went out and got one and scored it for us.”
Blake was huge for the Vandals with 24 points, a game-high 11 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal.
Sanders led the Vandals with 28 points and hit six of 12 three pointers. He fired up the crowd with those rainbows, and in a senior day nod to injured teammate Perrion Callandret, Sanders wore Callandret’s Number 1 jersey instead of his own Number 11. Callandret missed what would have been his senior season last year with a knee injury, and he broke his kneecap Feb. 22 against Idaho State. He did not play in Idaho’s final three games, including senior night again.
The Thunderbirds decided early to take on the Vandals inside-out, and they made a determined effort to establish a low-post game. One of the Vandals’ six seniors, Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, was more than willing to mix it up inside, especially in the first half, when he scored 13 of his 15 points, even though he was leveled by a shot to the jaw from Christian Musoko, who committed Southern Utah’s first flagrant foul.
That merely energized Mkrtychyan. He hit both free throws after the foul, and on the Idaho inbound play he drove down the lane against Ivan Madunic, and scored again.
“It was a physical game,” Verlin acknowledged.
James McGee was held scoreless in the first half. But in the final period he dropped 18 points on the Vandals, including hitting three of five three-point attempts, to lead the Thunderbirds.
“They are Division I basketball players. They’ve got scholarships for a reason,” Sanders said of the Thunderbirds. Sometimes you’ve got good defense but better offense.”
The win allowed Idaho to wrap up its regular season with a 22-8 record, 14-4 in the Big Sky Conference. Thursday in the Big Sky Tournament the Vandals will play the winner of an Idaho State-Southern Utah matchup that takes place on Tuesday.
The Thunderbirds fell to 11-18 overall, 5-13 in the Big Sky.
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