MOSCOW, Idaho – It took long enough, but as Idaho heads into the Big Sky Conference Tournament, the Vandals have a picture in their heads of how things are supposed to go when they play the way they can.
Idaho split its home season wrap-up series with Montana State. The Vandals’ consistent turnover problem resurfaced Sunday with 16, and they dropped a 71-61 decision to the Bobcats.
Two days earlier, though, Idaho held turnovers even with MSU at 12 apiece and outplayed the Bobcats in nearly every other aspect in getting their first victory in a 1-19 season, 74-69.
“They’ve been tired of listening to me tell them they’re improving that they are doing what we’re asking of them and they don’t reap the benefits of it at the end of the game,” Idaho coach Zac Claus said of his players
Damen Thacker’s 22 points, including 4 of 8 3-point attempts, led an efficient offense that shot 45.3% for the game, 24 of 53. Rebounds were 28 each, but Idaho had an 8-6 advantage on the offensive boards, led by big men Scott Blakney and Tanner Christensen with a pair apiece.
The Vandals were also deadly at the free-throw line, connecting on 17 of 18.
Idaho worked for good rebounding position throughout the game against Montana State’s competent post duo Jubrile Belo and Devin Kirby. Idaho’s passing was crisp and confident, reflected in 14 assists. The Vandals made five steals, with Thacker and Christensen accounting for two each, and they completely shut down MSU’s perimeter offense, holding the Bobcats to 0 for 12 beyond the arc. Moreover, it seemed every Idaho player who got on the court made a useful contribution. Ethan Kilgore, for instance, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a pair of shots in about 14 minutes of playing time.
When the Bobcats attempted to clog the lane against Idaho’s low posts, the Vandals were decisive in getting the ball quickly out to the perimeter and often into the hands of Ja’Vary Christmas, who buried 3 of 4 3-pointers, in addition to grabbing five rebounds and making five assists.
It is not basketball, but early in the second half, with the Vandals holding a six-point lead, 6-1 freshman Hunter-Jack Madden went toe-to-toe with MSU’s 6-7 Borja Fernandez until they were separated by officials.
Claus walked a careful line in approving, if not the method, at least the meaning behind the confrontation.
Idaho, which has seen teams pull away in the second half all year, was not going to be pushed around in this game.
“I want our guys to have a great level of toughness, but I want them to do it with the same amount of poise, as well,” Claus said.
“But I have no qualms with our guys standing up, and competing and being tough for one another.”
Sunday, the Vandals came back to earth.
MSU found enough of its outside shooting touch (4 for 11) and scored 22 points on Idaho’s turnovers and went off on the kind of second-half run that has doomed Idaho all season, outscoring the Vandals 15-2 to open the period. The Bobcats hit the glass with determination, ran their offensive cuts hard and defended aggressively.
“They did a real nice job of being aggressive defensively,” Claus said. “They really fed off their defensive energy in that regard. It enabled them to play downhill in transition, get themselves going off the bounce. A couple of good post touches and a few timely 3s there.”
Idaho couldn’t put a combination on the court to equal the Bobcats’ intensity.
“We were trying to find the right guys to defend the ball. … At the other end, we were trying to find the right guys to finish plays and knock down a timely shot or two,” Claus said.
The Vandals were able to work down the deficit to five points when DeAndre Robinson executed a crossover on Fernandez . But Idaho got no closer in the remaining 9:37.
Christensen had another good game and led Idaho with a dozen points. He also picked up a first-half foul on a moving screen that nearly rocked Bobcats 5-8 guard Xavier Bishop out of his shoes when Bishop ran into it.
On Tuesday, Idaho announced its series against Montana this week was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols within the UI program. The Vandals will not play again until the first round of the Big Sky Tournament, which begins March 10 in Boise.
The Vandals are somewhat banged up.
Blakney limped off for the last 10 minutes of the first half of the initial MSU game after he and Kirby collided in the lane. Babacar Thiombane continues to battle an ankle injury and was unable to play in either game. Thacker left the court Sunday with about 3 minutes to play with a head wound Claus said would require stitches.
“It’s the natural bumps and bruises of February in college basketball,” Claus said, referring to Blakney specifically but making a broader point. “He is not at 100 percent physically. Nobody is right now. It is just a matter of fighting through it.”
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