MOSCOW, Idaho – Suddenly, they can’t lose.
As recently as Feb. 10, the Idaho Vandals were wallowing in the doldrums of a 5-18 season, 2-11 in the Big Sky Conference, after falling to almost equally hapless Idaho State 79-70.
Since then, the Vandals (8-18, 5-11) have taken down the Big Sky’s second-place team, Weber State (83-79), fifth-place Montana (82-76) and sixth-place Eastern Washington (14-13, 8-8), which fell 83-80 on Saturday.
The most recent win might have been the toughest. It was not firmly in the books until the Eagles’ Ellis Magnuson desperately chased down a long rebound on the baseline in the EWU forecourt with little more than 1 second remaining and flung the ball high and backward toward the court. At the top of the lane, the Vandals’ 6-foot-10 Tanner Christensen outjumped a pair of shorter EWU players and gathered in the ball as one of the largest ICCU Arena crowds (2,230) erupted in joy.
“We tried like crazy to stay in the moment,” Idaho coach Zac Claus said.
Claus lauded his team’s resiliency after getting down by 14 points in the first half.
“We couldn’t get stops to save our life,” he said.
Although the Vandals chipped away at the Eagles’ lead, they were still trailing 36-25 when Vandals point guard Trevante Anderson and EWU’s Ethan Price went after a loose ball. Anderson was clotheslined. His feet went out from under him, and the back of his head slammed on the court.
“I was very concerned when he hit the floor,” Claus said.
Anderson exited the game for barely a minute. When he returned, his play over the remaining 2:38 of the first half fueled the Vandals’ comeback. He immediately grabbed a rebound, attacked the rim, scored and was fouled by Linton Acliese III and made the free throw.
Anderson scored three more points on a drive and free throw. He also grabbed two rebounds and dealt assists to Philip Pepple Jr. and Jemeil King. Anderson’s drive and dish to King resulted in King’s 3-pointer that tied the score at 40 at halftime.
“He made some dynamic plays at both ends. He has the ability to play with a great deal of toughness about him,” Claus said.
“That was just big,” Idaho’s Rashad Smith, who scored 22 points, said of drawing even with the Eagles after the first half.
“He’s our point guard,” Smith said. “He’s got to bring that spark every game. He brings us together and keeps us together.”
Anderson had a huge game. In addition to scoring 15 points, he had seven assists, a steal, and, as a 6-1 guard, a team-high nine rebounds.
Smith’s 22 points came on 8-of-10 shooting, including 5 for 5 from beyond the arc, and a free throw.
“When that first shot went in, I started clicking,” Smith said, adding that the game brought him out of a recent slump.
One of Smith’s two missed shots was a tomahawk dunk that rebounded off the back of the rim.
“He dunked it with the wrong hand. If he dunks it with two hands, that’s two more points,” said Claus, smiling slightly.
Idaho opened the second half by immediately grabbing the lead on a Christensen putback.
The Eagles rallied to take a 50-48 lead with about 4 minutes gone in the half when Acliese scored in the paint.
Smith got Idaho ahead 53-52 with a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, and the lead changed hands nine more times in the second half before Christensen hit a pair of free throws with 3:10 to play. It put Idaho in front 76-75. EWU tied the game one final time, at 80, when Steele Venters hit a 3-pointer.
With 52 seconds remaining, Idaho’s Mikey Dixon lost the handle on his dribble, recovered, drove through the Eagles’ interior defense, drawing it to himself, and kicked an assist to Christensen, who scored from the lane.
Christensen gave the Vandals 18 points on 5-of-6 shooting and connecting on 8 of 12 free throws. Dixon followed with 13 points.
The bulk of EWU’s scoring was clustered among three players. Angelo Allegri had a game-high 23 points. Acliese scored 20 and Venters added 18.
The Eagles play at Northern Colorado on Thursday. The surging Vandals travel to Sacramento State, with the ISU loss receding from their memories.
“After that game, we all clicked,” Smith said. “We thought we could be something special.
“It’s no fun to lose.”
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