Each night in the Big Sky season, we seem to learn a lot about the teams and the makeup of the Big Sky race, and Saturday night was no different. Let's take a quick peek at all six of the games on Saturday night to see what happens, and what it might mean in the bigger picture.
Eastern Washington 89, Idaho 86
We knew this would be an entertaining game, and it didn't disappoint. The Vandals led by four near the end of the first half, but it was a 42-41 EWU lead at the break. The Eagles led by nine late, but the Vandals came right back and had a chance to tie at the buzzer. Though Idaho did a good job containing Tyler Harvey (23 poiunts, but he was just 4/11 from downtown), Venky Jois had an efficient 18 and 8, Drew Brandon nearly put up a triple-double, and Bogdan Bliznyuk had another nice day off the bench. EWU took care of the ball, hit 11 threes, and was efficient inside the arc for a nice offensive performance on the road.
Idaho was in the game until the end thanks to their own explosive offense, as they shot just under 50%, but rebounded 14 of their own misses. They didn't have one standout, but got key contributions from several guys. These two meet again on January 31 in Cheney, and that should be a good one again. The Vandals still have many defensive issues, but it is clear that with their offensive firepower, they have as good of a chance as anyone to be in the top three in the Big Sky.
Northern Colorado 84, Sacramento State 73
UNC had been having their share of struggles for about a month before conference play, but a two game homestand where you average 87 PPG is a good way to cure any struggles. Tevin Svihovec was the best player on the floor, with 26 points on 14 FG attempts, adding on five rebounds and four assists. When he plays like that, he is great at getting to the line and getting good looks in the lane. Behind him was the depth that is the Bears strength, as eight other guys scored at least four points, with six of them scoring at least seven. The Bears hurt you in a lot of ways, and they were all on display in this game.
The Hornets struggled to keep up in the second half (they led 39-36 at the break) because they struggled to hit from the outside, making just 8/25 threes. They rebounded well which is a good sign for them (another good sign: Cody Demps played a stellar game offensively), but Mikh McKinney struggled to take care of the ball with 5 turnovers. Still, both teams are now 3-1 and have to be feeling good about the first couple of weeks. Like many others, they are in good shape.
Northern Arizona 70, Southern Utah 67
The TBirds continue to get close to wins, but their furious rally in the final five minutes wasn't enough. This was a three-point game at the end, but NAU led by as many as 19, including by 15 at the five minute mark. The final score is a little deceiving. NAU's struggles offensive do continue a bit though, as they were just 12/39 from inside the arc, but were saved by SUU's continuing gifts of trips to the foul line for the opponents. The Jacks were 28/36 from the stripe. Quinton Upshur continues to struggle, and that has to be a big concern for NAU. SUU is 0-3, but really, they give you the feeling that they might not finish in the cellar for the second straight year.
Weber State 65, Montana State 62
After a nice win Thursday, Weber State may have coasted a bit in beating Montana State by just three at home. MSU jumped on them early, getting an eight point lead, but it was dangerously close the rest of the way. The Wildcats shot 36% and only had nine assists compared to 12 turnovers, but they shot 31 free throws and held MSU to just 1.00 PPP. Joel Bolomboy had eight offensive rebounds by himself, as he finished with 17 points, 11 boards, and 3 blocked shots. As I have said about MSU, they don't necessarily have a ton of talent right now, but they will be in games unexpectedly and win some of them thanks to good coaching and full out effort. This was one of those games, but they just weren't able to get over the hump.
Montana 90, Idaho State 64
The Grizzlies jumped out to a huge lead in this game and never looked back. They were on fire from deep, hitting 15/27 threes, (including seven by Brandon Gfeller himself). They did whatever they wanted offensively, taking care of the ball, and getting contributions from many. On the other end, ISU was an effiicent 24/43 inside the arc, but once again couldn't hit from the outside, and finished a miserable 7/17 from the foul line. The Grizzlies continue to play well defensively, while the Bengals have the look of a bottom three team without the talent necessary to crawl into the top eight. This was a beatdown. NAU is 2-1, and has a big home game Thursday against Weber State followed by Idaho State. It's not inconceivable at all that they could be 4-1 by this time next week.
Portland State 82, North Dakota 75
This game was not really as close as the final score indicated, as PSU jumped out to an early 17-6 lead after the first ten minutes, and led by as many as 17 midway through the second half. Two days after I said the Hornets had to be happy just to escape Grand Forks with a win, the Vikings went in and dominated the game. It was a very fast paced game, so UND's 75 points are also a bit deceiving, as PSU played solid on the defensive end. UND had just 22 at the half, and 43 at the 10 minute mark of the second half, so there was a lot of garbage time points. They had some nice individual performances (Braxton Tucker had 20 points, Tiegbe Bamba with 14 rebounds, DaShaun Wiggins with 18 points), but it was the D that was the best sign for them.
For North Dakota, being swept at home is the type of thing that diminishes their chances of competing for the Big Sky tournament. For the teams at the bottom, there is no large margin of error, and an early season sweep at home hurts. They now sit at 1-3, and their host UNC followed by a roadtrip to play EWU and Idaho. With the poor start, there is no margin of error in a tough three game stretch.
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