MOSCOW, Idaho – With 6 seconds to play Saturday, Idaho was down two points to Southern Utah.
The Vandals’ Mikey Dixon owned a career scoring game with 27 points, and Idaho had matched the customarily big, physical Thunderbirds inside – each team scoring 34 points in the paint.
But the Vandals needed to foul to get the ball, and Dre Marin and John Knight III hit two free throws apiece down the stretch to allow SUU to escape with an 81-75 Big Sky Conference win in a game that was closer than the final score almost the entire way.
“I was proud of my team. We fought hard, played hard,” Dixon said.
It wasn’t reflected in the scoring of Vandals big men Tanner Christensen, with eight points, and Philip Pepple, with two, but Idaho didn’t give up the inside to the Thunderbirds on offense or defense.
That forced SUU to work on the low block and the boards and reduced the ability of Thunderbird defenders to suffocate Idaho on the perimeter.
“Tanner has started finding his way since the last game (a 90-73 loss to North Dakota State in which Christensen scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds). He’s finding a rhythm low,” Dixon said.
“That opens up other things. It helps me, obviously. It spreads the floor.”
Dixon hit 11 of 20 field-goal attempts, including 3 of 8 from beyond the arc, and made 2 of 3 free throws. Trevante Anderson added 12 points for Idaho on 5-for-11 shooting.
“When we don’t set good screens, we’re easy to guard,” Idaho coach Zac Claus said. “When we’re in synch, we play good basketball.”
Christensen, Pepple and 6-foot-5 Ethan Kilgore, who scored 10 points, were aggressive enough around the rim to suggest an identity may be emerging for the Vandals (1-7, 0-1).
“But we went toe-to-toe with probably the best team in the league,” Claus said of the near miss against the Thunderbirds (5-3, 2-0).
The Thunderbirds opened an eight-point lead in the first half, but it always felt tenuous, and Idaho was resilient.
UI trailed 36-33 at halftime, and Gabe Quinnett nearly tied it with a 3-pointer just after the buzzer.
Marin led SUU with 19 points. Tevian Jones followed with 17 and Maizen Fausett added 15. Jones scored nine points within the first 4 minutes of the second half, after Idaho gained a 37-36 lead on Rashad Smith’s step-back 3-pointer.
SUU remained in close contact with Idaho, trailing 63-57 halfway through the second half.
The Thunderbirds finally pulled ahead for good after Fausett hit a 3-pointer with just under 7 minutes to play.
Claus diagnosed Idaho’s shortfall down the stretch as giving up a few transition baskets and allowing the Thunderbirds to finally gain an edge (15-9) with offensive rebounds.
“Too many second chances,” Dixon agreed. “I don’t think it’s a big secret.
“We’ve got to pay better attention to details. But overall, we fought hard. Credit Southern Utah.”
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