MOSCOW, Idaho – In a game with 12 lead changes that left a fully invested crowd elated or agonized by turns, Idaho was hot on the heels of Portland State (70-67) with 2 minutes to play Thursday before allowing the Vikings to get away on a 9-1 run during a 79-68 victory.
With one regular-season game remaining, the Vikings stand at 11-15 and 10-9 in the Big Sky, while Idaho slipped to 8-21, 5-14.
This one had the feel of a winnable game that slipped out of Idaho’s grasp. Unfortunately for the Vandals, they were haunted by the return of some problems from earlier in the season.
They allowed PSU to get out to a quick 8-0 lead.
The Vandals’ defense was too often on its heels as the Vikings attacked the rim relentlessly, and the offense had 22 turnovers and too many possessions featuring one Idaho player taking on multiple defenders.
“You can’t turn the ball over 22 times. We have to get stops,” Idaho coach Zac Claus said, pointing to the many challenged, off-balanced attempts to get to the basket.
PSU’s victory margin was inflated down the stretch as the Vandals desperately tried to shoot themselves back into contention and misfired on four 3-point shots in the closing 40 seconds.
Nonetheless, Idaho brought enough to this contest to more than keep it interesting.
Vandals point guard Trevante Anderson kept his recent scoring hot streak going and led everyone with 24 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. He and Mikey Dixon led the Vandals with three assists apiece. Anderson, however, also accounted for eight Vandals’ turnovers.
In the first half, despite the Vikings’ quick break from the opening tipoff, Anderson kept his teammates believing with 16 points.
He gave the Vandals their first lead (25-24) with a hesitation move and burst to the hoop at the 6-minute mark.
From there, the lead changed hands five more times as Anderson allowed Idaho to go into halftime up 38-36 when he buried a long 3-pointer from beyond the top of the lane in the closing seconds.
Anderson was closely shadowed by Philip Pepple Jr., who scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds – including five on the offensive glass – and swatted a pair of Vikings shots.
“He did some really good things tonight,” Claus said.
PSU had four scorers in double figures, led by Marlon Ruffin with 19 points. Ezekiel Alley followed with 15, Khalid Thomas 14 and Michael Carter III 11.
Reflecting their fanatical zeal to get to the rim, the Vikings outscored the Vandals in the paint, 54-34, and led in fast break points, 22-10.
“They’ve been doing that leading up to this game,” said Claus. PSU connected on 31 of 64 shots from the floor, 48.4 percent. It was good enough, as the Vandals were only able to answer with a 39.7 percent effort, 23 of 58.
The Vikings might have been able to wring the drama from the game sooner if they had shot better at the free throw line, where they were only 13 of 21, 61.9 percent.
All its efforts to go one-against-the-defense, however, netted the Vandals only two more free throws. They were 17 of 23 at the line, 73.9 percent.
After winning three close games at home before falling twice on the road and to PSU Thursday, Claus declined to speculate about the state of his team heading into the Big Sky Conference tournament.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. Idaho closes the regular season Saturday, at home, against Northern Arizona. “That’s my single focus,” said Claus.
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