RENO, Nev.—A hot start and a thrilling second half helped the Idaho Vandals men's basketball team advance to the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament with an 81-77 win over No. 5 Montana at the Reno Events Center on Thursday. With the win, Idaho advances to the semifinals where the Vandals will take on the No. 1 Fighting Hawks of North Dakota.
Idaho (18-12) got off to a scorching start on Thursday. The Vandals opened 9-for-10 from the field, building a 21-16 lead at the 11:05 mark. Arkadiy Mkrtychyan led the offensive charge for Idaho. He started 5-for-5 from the field, totaling 12 points in the half. The Vandals went up by as many as 13 in the half, gaining a 36-23 lead thanks to a transition 3 by senior Victor Sanders.
Montana would come on late in the first with a 7-0 run, cutting the Vandal lead down to four in the final minute. Brayon Blake hit Idaho's fifth triple as the half expired, extending Idaho's lead to 41-34 at the break.
Montana (16-16) continued to keep play close in the second half. The Griz cut the Idaho lead down to four with the opening possession of the half. A 3-for-3 start from the field helped keep the Vandals at arm's length. A Mkrtychyan jumper put the Vandals up nine, 50-41, with just over three minutes played in the half.
Play continued back and forth, trading baskets on each end. The Griz got the first big push of the half, going on a 5-0 run, trimming the Idaho lead down to 57-55 with 10:17 to play. Mkrtychyan and Pat Ingram helped push the lead back up to six, before a 6-0 run for Montana tied the game up at 61.
The final five minutes of play featured three ties and four lead changes. Sanders hit back-to-back shots to put Idaho up three, 77-74, inside the final minute. Montana got within one, 78-77, but free throws from Sanders and Allen closed out the win for the Vandals.
Sanders and Mkrtychyan finished with 19 points apiece to lead the Vandals. Sanders was all over the box score, grabbing four boards, dishing out five assists, blocking two shots and picking up two steals. Blake and Nate Sherwood also went into double-figures, finishing with 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Idaho shot a blistering 65.4 percent (17-of-26) from the floor in the first half and finished at 54.9 percent (28-of-51). The Vandals won the battle of the boards, 32-24.
Pat Ingram. Ingram finished with 10 points on the day, going 3-of-5 from the floor and 4-of-4 at the line. He also paced the Vandals with six boards, including five offensive, fighting among the trees to give Idaho extra opportunities.
Ingram was also impressive in last year's quarterfinal win, scoring a then career-best 12 points against EWU.
"I thought our guys played extremely hard tonight, with a lot of heart," said head coach Don Verlin. "Pat coming up with those big offensive rebounds. The gameplan was to go down low early and I thought Ark delivered early. Time and time again. I thought Montana did a really nice job of pressuring us and not allowing us to get it down there that easily.
"One thing we've been working on all year long is sustaining our intensity and playing to the final horn, no matter what it is. I thought our guys did that tonight."
- Idaho moves onto the semifinals to face top-seeded North Dakota. The Vandals fell in the first meeting on the road.
- Five Vandals scored in double-figures in a regulation, Division I game for the first time this season. Five Vandals also scored in double-figures in the overtime win over NCAA Tournament-bound South Dakota State.
Fans can stay up-to-date on all things Idaho men's basketball by following the team on twitter, @VandalHoops.