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Sports >  Idaho basketball

Idaho falls to Northern Arizona in first round of Big Sky Tournament 87-76

March 4, 2023 Updated Sat., March 4, 2023 at 10:08 p.m.

Idaho was knocked out of the Big Sky men's basketball tournament in Boise on Saturday, after losing to Northern Arizona in the first round.  (Courtesy Idaho Athletics)
Idaho was knocked out of the Big Sky men's basketball tournament in Boise on Saturday, after losing to Northern Arizona in the first round. (Courtesy Idaho Athletics)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – Now that another season of struggle is over, the Idaho Vandals can truly turn their energies to change and renewal, and the search for a more promising future.

Except that in the wake of their first-round exit from the Big Sky Conference Tournament on Saturday night, they didn’t seem all that eager to leave it behind.

No matter that their head coach had been fired earlier in the week. No matter what the won-lost record said.

Northern Arizona put away the Vandals 87-76 at Idaho Central Arena to earn a shot at 4:30 p.m. Sunday against Eastern Washington, the Sky’s regular-season champion and top seed – Idaho’s last gasp of survival unspooling in a final 5 minutes of missed shots and turnovers.

Whatever poise they might have lacked down the stretch the Vandals managed to summon in the postmortem.

“Even though it didn’t go the way I wanted, it was still a great experience and I made great relationships (at Idaho),” senior Rashad Smith said. “I’m proud to be a Vandal, and I’ll say that until the day I die.”

The 10-22 record of 2023 didn’t change his mind, nor did the awkward axing of Zac Claus in the minutes after last Monday’s regular-season finale. And before turning the page, interim head coach Tim Marrion dove headfirst in a tribute because “I don’t know if I’ll ever get this type of platform again.”

He ticked through examples of leaning on his former boss through personal trials, to having to recruit through NCAA probation that Claus inherited, to strides the players made in the classroom and their efforts in community service.

“Athletic departments have mission statements and you never see wins and losses on them,” Marrion said. “Now, I’m not naïve to it at all. I know our program didn’t do enough for our staff to be retained. We could have been a lot better.

“But when you look at the mission statement and all the core values, our program exemplified them.”

On Saturday, that meant continuing to scratch during a cat-and-mouse affair that saw 17 ties or lead changes.

Though the Vandals got their usual production from big man Isaac Jones (23 points) and point guard Divant’e Moffitt (15), they were at their best when forward Nigel Burris was in overdrive.

Named the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year earlier in the week, the 6-foot-7 Burris erupted for a career-high 21 points and was unstoppable early in the second half, working over NAU’s Nik Mains at will.

“He has such a bright future,” Marrion said. “I think he was the only recruit in the (247Sports) rankings that signed with a Big Sky school.

“He was unbelievably efficient tonight and really all season.”

But after Burris took a 3-minute breather midway through the second half, the Vandals never found a way to tap into him again – other than a dunk that pulled Idaho within two points, 74-72, with 5:22 remaining, after falling behind by 11.

And that was about the time it all fell apart for Idaho.

It began when Dominique Ford came up limping after being fouled on a 3-pointer and made just 1 of 3 free throws. NAU’s Xavier Fuller then rose for a sky-high block of Jones at the rim. And Smith made two crushing turnovers – one an offensive foul, the other with bodies on both teams flying – on pedal-to-the-metal drives with the Vandals still trailing by just three.

But the dagger didn’t come until 44 seconds remained when NAU’s Oakland Fort – a 25% 3-point shooter in Sky games – was allowed to line one up without a defender within 10 feet. It was his third in a 13-point night, more than eight above his season average. The Lumberjacks made 13 in all – and both teams shot 51% from the field.

“I’m sure this happens to other coaches,” Marrion said, “and full credit to Oakland Fort. We go on Synergy and look at the numbers and I think he’s 2 for 12 on the season from 3, off the bounce. Would you know, we go under (on screens) and he goes bang, bang, bang. But that’s what good players do.”

Well after the buzzer sounded, Smith tried to leave the floor – a towel draped over his head hiding tears – only to be intercepted for a long embrace by Moffitt, also a senior.

“I am nothing but grateful,” Moffitt said. “I’ve been living out my dream every day.”

Marrion, too, in a different way.

“The foundation is here to have a lot of success – if these players can be retained,” he said. “And I think they’ve had a good experience. It’s bittersweet that I won’t be a part of it, but I’ll be cheering them on from wherever the heck I am.”

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