BOISE — The Idaho men’s basketball team wasn’t ready to end a trying season without at least a fight.
But the Vandals’ dream of an upset and comeback victory in the Big Sky Tournament slipped away when the ball slipped out of Trevon Allen’s hands.
Allen had the ball in the game’s closing seconds with Idaho down two points, but lost control of it. Montana State’s Tyler Hall recovered and sank both of his free throws, securing a 75-71 win for the Bobcats on Wednesday in the opening round at CenturyLink Arena.
“We’ve grown up a lot here in the last two or three weeks,” said Idaho coach Don Verlin. “Today was good because we came back and had a chance to win. I’ve never been through a year like this, where we’ve had so many injuries and so many major guys go down. But you got to give the guys credit who are still playing. They fought all the way to the end, and that’s all you can ask as a coach.”
The loss ends a season where the Vandals (5-27) tied a school record for losses after winning 22 games and finishing second in the Big Sky a year ago. But Idaho had to play this season without its seven leading scorers from that team, as six seniors graduated and Nate Sherwood, who was to be the Vandals’ only senior this season suffered a career-ending injury before the year began.
The Vandals had to battle additional injuries throughout the season, and started the game Wednesday with just eight players available. They were down to seven by halftime, as RayQuawndis Mitchell missed the entire second half with an undisclosed injury.
But despite all their struggles this year, Idaho returns everybody next year. And after seeing the fight the Vandals put up Wednesday, they have big dreams for next season.
“I think a big thing is seeing the potential we have and understanding what we need to do in order to raise our potential to be able to become as good as we can be,” said Allen, who led the Vandals with 21 points. ”That’s something that we’ve really learned and it’s got me excited for next year. This last game, to see how hard we played, all the way through the game, is a huge step for us.”
Early on, Idaho looked like anything but a team that had 27 losses. The Vandals scored the game’s first 10 points thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Cameron Tyson and held on to a 20-10 lead midway through the first half.
“We were all feeling good, it wasn’t just me,” said Tyson, who had four 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 17 points. “We got out to that 10-0 run and made them call a quick timeout. We jumped on them early and that’s something we set our minds to when we started again, let’s make them call another timeout. And we did that.”
Montana State went on a 14-2 run, and took its first lead of the game on a 3-pointer by Harald Frey with just under five minutes left in the half.
The Bobcats (15-16) went into halftime with a 32-30 lead.
“At this point in the season, if you’re not playing hard, if you’re not competing hard, you’re not going to win anyways,” Verlin said. “We just talked about making a couple adjustments about what we had to do, and that’s about all that was said at halftime.”
Montana State jumped out to a quick 10-point lead in the second half, and extended it to 57-42 after a pair of free throws by Devin Kirby with 12:21 left in the game, but Idaho slowly worked its way back.
A four-point play by Allen with eight minutes to go cut the deficit to single digits, 61-54. Another jump shot by Allen with 6:34 to go made it 63-58.
And a 6-0 run finally cut the Bobcats’ lead to just one possession, 73-71, with 31 seconds to go.
“I think tonight knowing it was either win or go home, it was something that caused the guys to kick in an extra gear and find a way to come back,” said Allen.
Idaho had two chances to either tie or take the lead after the Bulldogs missed the front end of one-and-one free throws twice.
The first chance, an Allen jump shot, fell no good and Idaho just missed getting the offensive rebound for another shot.
The second time the Vandals got the ball, Allen lost control of it near midcourt with Hall coming away with the steal. After eluding the Vandal defenders to take a few extra seconds off the clock, he made both free throws to secure the Bobcats’ spot in the quarterfinals today against Eastern Washington, and send the Vandals back to Moscow.
“I thought the guys we had out there battled their tails off and fought like crazy,” said Verlin. “I told them in the locker room after the game, three or four weeks ago, when we got down 15, we would have quit and we didn’t. We fought like crazy and had a chance to steal one here against a good Montana State team.”
Jared Rodriguez finished with 18 points for the Vandals.
S. UTAH 94, IDAHO ST. 80: The Thunderbirds went 11 of 15 from 3-point range, and the Bengals didn’t have an answer.
The 73.3 percent 3-point conversion rate is a season high for the Thunderbirds (15-15), who advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals.
SUU’s 3-point shooting helped the T-birds erase ISU’s 11-point, first-half lead, and held off multiple Bengals second-half comeback attempts.
Idaho State (11-19) led 41-40 at halftime, but had to fight to cut Southern Utah’s 72-59 lead to 72-68 with 6 minutes, 41 seconds to go in the second.
The Bengals missed nine of their next 10 shots after that, while SUU lived beyond the arc and at the charity stripe.
The first-round tournament win is Southern Utah’s third in three years. ISU is still searching for its first conference tournament win since 2009.
SACRAMENTO STATE 72, NORTHERN ARIZONA 60: Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa hit his first five shots of the day, including four 3-pointers and Marcus Graves scored 27 points, as Sacramento State moved on to today’s quarterfinals against top-seed Montana.
Mauriohooho-Le’afa finished with 17 points for the Hornets (15-15), while Joshua Patton scored 12.
Sacramento State shot 52.9 percent from the field, including a 12-for-20 effort from behind the 3-point line.
Bernie Andre led Northern Arizona (10-21) with 19 points.