RENO, Nevada — Vic Sanders knifed through the lane as his Vandals desperately gasped for air. One of the greatest scorers in the history of the Big Sky soared for a dunk but the ball rattled out of the rim, landing into the hands of Southern Utah senior Dwayne Morgan.
The missed dunk was the final cruel error on a disjointed night filled with them for an Idaho team that once harbored such lofty expectations.
After Morgan secured his fifth rebound with 22 seconds left in a contest where the Southern Utah star was saddled with foul trouble, the Vandals could not muster the gusto to foul and keep fighting, instead letting despondent looks wash over each of their faces.
The preseason favorites to win the Big Sky, one of the most veteran teams in all of college basketball, are finished. Idaho’s six seniors including Sanders and first-team All-Big Sky power forward B.J. Blake will leave Reno after only one game.
And the unlikely Cinderella run of the 10th seed from Southern Utah marches on.
SUU hit 3-pointers on two of its first three possessions to open the game on an 8-2 run, endured Idaho’s pressure to close the first half, then continued to scorch the nets from beyond the arc and the charity stripe on the way to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Big Sky Tournament.
Southern Utah shot 60 percent from the floor and from beyond the 3-point line and flustered the emotional Vandals, surging to a 92-78 victory in the quarterfinals on Saturday night.
“They just hit tough shots and it’s not like we weren’t trying, not like we weren’t giving it effort,” a heartbroken Sanders said following the loss. “We stuck with our game plan and we did what we were coached to do. Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be. As a senior, I have no regrets. For four years, I’ve given it everything I’ve got. It’s tough. Losing in the first round as the No. 2 seed is tough. But it’s March Madness and you have to take it as it comes.”
Idaho has built a reputation as the most assured and assertive team in the Big Sky Conference, a confident group that plays off emotion and buries opponents by overwhelming them with their energy. But Southern Utah looked like the most confident team in the building on Thursday night, never blinking in leading for the final 18 minutes of the game.
“We don’t do a lot of talking with this group right now because they are starting to take it over,” said second-year head coach Todd Simon, who has 19 games at SUU including three in the Big Sky Tournament. “It’s getting to the point where they are starting to teach each other.”
Brandon Better’s fourth and final 3-pointer during his career-high 27-point performance pushed the SUU lead to 10 points, 69-59, with seven minutes, 41 seconds remaining and the margin never dipped under 10 points again.
“In this tournament situation, everyone’s backs are against the wall so you have to find a certain toughness that you might not think you have because you want to advance,” SUU senior forward Jamal Aytes, a former BYU transfer, said after scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds. “We didn’t want to lose.”
Idaho closed the first half on an 11-2 run to take a 41-40 lead to the break. But the Thunderbirds hit 15 of their 25 second-half shots, including a pair of daggers from deep by Jadon Cohee (20 points) in the final four minutes of the game to keep the Vandals at bay. SUU also hit 10 of 12 free throws, including 5-of-6 from Better, in the final 1:39 of the game to salt away any Vandals’ comeback attempt.
“It comes down to us believing in our coaches and their philosophies,” Aytes, said. “We are a new team. Everybody knows that. But we got to the end of the regular season and we decided it’s a new season. We have a goal to make it to the NCAA Tournament and that’s been the driving force to keep getting better.”
With both Sanders and Blake battling foul trouble and the Vandals unable to buy a call or get a bounce, the frustration was written on all the faces of Idaho’s players. A normally exuberant bench sat in shock as Southern Utah continued to reign 3-pointers and executes almost flawlessly in a 52-point second half.
Blake, who finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, converted a bucket through contact before initially getting called for an offensive foul, his fifth with 1:15 left. After a review, the foul was ruled on Aytes instead, sending Blake to the free throw line with a chance to cut it to 10. His free throw missed, one of three missed freebies by the senior and one of six misses from the stripe for the Vandals.
After Blake missed what could’ve been the final free throw attempt of his career — Idaho head coach Don Verlin said the 22-win Vandals will explore its postseason options — Blake clapped his hands in frustration, a dejected look on his face as the disappointing result set in.
“No regrets,” said Blake, a former junior college transfer who blossomed into the league’s leading rebounder and best power forward his final season. “We had a great season and we leave a great legacy at U of I for the young guys to carry on. To lose like that, it definitely hurts but we have to keep our heads up as men and continue to fight. If we get invited to another tournament after this, we have to continue to play hard until the last buzzer, try to win that tournament.”
Sanders finished with 19 points but he needed 17 shots to do it. SUU shooting specialist James McGee transformed into a defensive stopper, never letting the talented combo guard into a rhythm. Sanders total gives him 1,804 points in his career, one point ahead of former Eastern Washington standout Venky Jois for 14th in league history and the second-most in Idaho history behind just Big Sky scoring champion Orlando Lightfoot (2,102).
“Vic is an NBA-level scorer who runs off a lot of ball screens so I was just doing my best to keep him in front,’ McGee said. “Every time he shot it, I was there on the catch. Every time he shot, I had my hand in his face and tried to corral him as much as I could. He’s so crafty off the ball but I was fortunate enough to make him miss enough times.”
While Idaho’s early exit left much of the Reno Events Center in shock, the unabashedly confident Thunderbirds continued rolling. SUU started league play 2-8 as the team tried to get a roster that includes eight new faces, including five transfers, to gel. But the pure physical talent of the T-Birds has never been in doubt, from Betters’ sharp shooting to Cohee’s ability to create his own shot to Morgan’s athleticism to play above the rim to Aytes’ bullish strength on the block.
Over the last month, SUU beat Idaho State, lost by four at North Dakota, lost in overtime to Portland State, beat Sac State for its fifth league win and lost to Idaho on a Blake buzzer-beater on senior night in Moscow in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“Our confidence now is one of our strong points and we’ve been implementing it throughout the year,” Simon said. “…We have fortified from a mental toughness standpoint, which is something we’ve been harping on. We weren’t going to get caught in the emotions of this game.”
Tuesday, SUU looked dangerous in knocking out No. 7 Idaho State with a 75-68 win. On Thursday, SUU shocked the league, moving into a semifinal matchup with the winner of Eastern Washington and Portland State on Friday night.
“These guys handle themselves like professionals,” Simon said. “We have an unbelievable support staff, trainers, strength and conditioning where these guys will get some rehab in these next 24 hours, get their bodies back ready to be at their peak in tomorrow night’s game and that’s our focus.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.