RENO, Nev. — One down, two to go.
The Idaho men’s basketball team had a goal all season of winning a Big Sky Conference championship. And it nearly took the entire team Thursday night to inch closer to that goal, with a 77-73 victory over Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals before a tournament-best crowd of 2,365 at the Reno Events Center.
Idaho (21-11), winners of four straight, will play second-seeded Montana at 8 p.m. tonight in the semifinals.
There was no hero Thursday night. Almost every player contributed to the team’s first conference tournament win since returning to the Big Sky last season. The taste of victory is even sweeter since it was EWU who bounced the Vandals from tournament in the first round last year.
“It was a sour feeling last year,” Idaho guard Vic Sanders said after scoring 17 points. “It was just payback. It feels good to get that win.”
Sure, Nate Sherwood was nearly perfect, shooting 9-of-10 from the field for a career-high 19 points.
“Tonight, I had it going,” Sherwood said. “It was my night.”
Indeed it was.
But it’s impossible to ignore Pat Ingram’s career-high 12 points in 15 minutes, and the way he wove through the EWU defense to draw fouls and convert layups. Perrion Callandret’s two free throws in the final 32.6 seconds to keep it a two-possession game can’t be overlooked, either. Nor can Jordan Scott’s block on EWU’s final possession with 4 seconds remaining to clinch the win.
“It was a great team effort,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “Pat Ingram came off the bench and gave us lift we haven’t gotten from Pat all year. He had his best game as an Idaho Vandal tonight. It was a great time to do it.
“Nate was tremendous tonight — 19 points, eight rebounds. Pretty good for a freshman. And Vic is Vic. It’s nice to have him back with a healthy hand. There were number of guys who played great basketball tonight.”
Idaho led the final 39 minutes of the game, relying on its defense — the team’s calling card all season — to beat EWU for the second straight time after losing four straight contests to its regional rival.
EWU (17-15) shot just 35.6 percent from the field and 9-of-32 from three. Its best guard, Austin McBroom missed all 10 of his field goal attempts. All 12 of his points came at the free throw, where the Eagles practically lived Thursday night.
“You try to take out any team’s focal point,” Sanders said. “As a team, we came together and played defense. We’re a defensive team. Part of doing that is stopping the best player, any player — all five, at that. Our team did a great job of following our game plan and doing what we do.”
Here’s what they did: Win the rebounding battle, 39-35. Outscore EWU in the paint, 44-18. And hold EWU to its lowest field goal percentage of the year. Venky Jois, its best player, netted a double-double of 17 points and 12 boards, but had to battle swats, swipes and stiff-arms from Sherwood and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan to do so.
Had Idaho not sent EWU to the free throw line so frequently, the game may not have been close. The Eagles converted on 22 of their 27 tries.
Now, it’s about Montana, the only thing standing in between Idaho and a spot in Saturday’s title game. The Vandals beat the Grizzlies — in Missoula, on Jan. 21 — in their only meeting of the year, without Callandret, thanks in large part to 29 points from Sanders.
To get a second triumph, well, Sanders made the recipe for that sound simplistic.
“Our coaches are going to give us our game plan. We’re going to follow the game plan,” Sanders said. “Nothing different, nothing more.”
That’s worked so far. No reason to stop now.
Michael-Shawn Dugar can be reached at 208-883-4629, by email to email@example.com or on Twitter to @MikeDugar.