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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  High school sports

As former University High big man Tanner Christensen finds his groove, his Idaho Vandals begin to find theirs

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 26, 2022

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho’s basketball season (5-14 overall, 2-7 Big Sky Conference) has improved from a lost cause to, optimistically, a work in progress.

With a dozen games remaining, the Vandals earned their first Big Sky Conference win against Sacramento State, 73-72 in overtime, last Saturday. They followed that with their first back-to-back wins this season when they eked out an 84-79 win in the last 10 seconds against Portland State on Monday.

The hard times Idaho has endured are mirrored by its starting post player, sophomore Tanner Christensen. He didn’t get onto the court until the Vandals hosted Washington State Nov. 18 after playing two exhibitions and three games.

Christensen had suffered a broken nose and a concussion in the preseason. After that, he was in the COVID protocol.

But in Idaho’s most recent games, Christensen, like the Vandals, has shown obvious improvement. In truth, Christensen even more so than his team.

Against Northern Colorado, a game the Vandals lost by 17 points, Christensen pinned the Bears’ 6-foot-9 Kur Jongkuch on his hip and spun into the lane to score. He took the ball to the basket against three defenders, blocked two shots in rapid succession and stole a lazy pass thrown across the lane. He earned his first double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Against Sacramento State, Christensen finished with a team-high 12 rebounds and blocked three shots.

Before fouling out late against Portland State, he contributed eight points and seven boards.

Listed on the Vandals’ roster at 6-10 and 260 pounds, Christensen is making notable strides in employing his imposing physique.

“I think I’m trying to be more aggressive in rebounding and stuff, using my size to my advantage, pushing people around down low,” Christensen said.

His NBA role models are the Denver Nuggets’ Nicola Jokic and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid. Growing up, Christensen imagined himself in the role of another pair of formidable big men, the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan and Minnesota Timberwolves’ and Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett.

For Christensen, though, his basketball career has consistently been an exercise in looking ahead to better times. He was an All-Greater Spokane League first-team pick, averaging 16.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks as a senior in 2017-2018. His University High Titans, however, compiled a lackluster 11-12 record.

After serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christensen returned to basketball at Idaho last season.

As a freshman, he was Idaho’s leading rebounder with an average of 4.3 per game. His introduction to college hoops, though, was the COVID season when the Vandals and everyone else played in empty gyms.

In that depressing environment, Idaho won only one game. Even as they chase rare wins this year, the Vandals get to do so before fans in their new ICCU Arena.

“Last year was definitely really different,” Christensen said. “It was kind of strange playing in empty gyms.

“After playing last year in Memorial Gym, it puts things in perspective how lucky we are to be here.”

Perspective isn’t recorded in statistics, but it is a valuable attribute Christensen brings to the Vandals, according to coach Zac Claus. Christensen’s LDS mission delivered to the Vandals a teammate seasoned by that experience, Claus said.

“He’s arguably one of the smartest guys on and off the court,” Claus said. “I love that about him.

“(In games) he can adjust to things on the fly. I never have to worry about him the moment he steps out of our building. … He will continue to be somebody we will lean on.”

Christensen was recruited by Claus’ predecessor, Don Verlin. Idaho was close to home, so his family could readily watch him play, and he liked the university and Moscow’s college town environment. Christensen committed to the Vandals and hung with Idaho after it went through a coaching change and promoted Claus from the staff to succeed Verlin.

“I definitely thought about leaving,” Christensen said. “But once they hired coach Claus, it made the decision easy for me. It was a done deal.”

Now, he looks for hopeful signs as the Vandals head down the stretch.

“I think we’re right there,” he said. “Every single game we’ve got to do one little thing better. Our defense has got to be better.

“Basketball is a game of runs. If we can stop runs and control the game on the defensive end, it makes everything so much easier.”

Idaho’s signature win (98-84) came against the Summit League’s South Dakota State in December. Christensen scored a season-high 14 points.

“That was kind of a breakthrough,” he said.

As the Vandals try to fashion bits and pieces of their wins into momentum for the remainder of the season, Christensen, as someone who hopes to dominate with his size, is heartened by another development.

“The Big Sky refs definitely let us play a little more,” he said.

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