POCATELLO – ISU led for the first 35 minutes of Thursday night’s game at Reed Gym, but exchanged blows with visiting Portland State down the stretch as the game’s only three lead changes came in the final three minutes.
With 44 seconds left, and ISU (8-9, 3-3 BSC) down by one, the Bengals got the stop they needed, but gave up a crucial offensive rebound which was hauled in by PSU’s 7-foot-1, 290-pound Ryan Edwards.
The Vikings (13-6, 3-3 BSC) took their second chance to the charity stripe where Deonte Strickland sank two free-throws to give PSU a three-point cushion with four seconds to go.
PSU then fouled ISU’s Brandon Boyd before he could attempt a potential game-tying shot, sending the conference’s worst free throw shooting team to the line.
Although one was intentional, Boyd missed both free throws as ISU went 5-of-13 from the free-throw line in the second half. The Bengals only made 52 percent of their foul shots on the night and Portland State won the game, 87-83, after trailing by 14 at halftime.
“It came down to execution and rebounding,” said Sam Dowd, who finished the game with 13 points in his second career ISU start.
The Bengals opened the game on a 23-10 run over the first six minutes and made their first nine baskets by beating PSU, a team that averages 91 points-per night, at its own game.
That game is aggressive, full-court defense and letting it fly from behind the three-point arc.
ISU easily broke the Vikings full-court pressure and converted on multiple easy baskets, scoring 14-of-its-18 fast-break points in the first half. ISU shot 61 percent from the field and scored 51 of its 83 points in the first 20 minutes.
“In the second half, we didn’t get as many because they changed what they were doing,” said head coach Bill Evans. “That meant we had to be in the half-court war and we didn’t execute as well as we needed to.”
Once PSU backed off the pressure, the ISU offense staggered. When foul trouble hit, the Bengals lost the lead.
Both Geno Luzcando and Balint Mocsan were in double figures by halftime, but were sent to the bench with four fouls with 13 minutes still to play. Novak Topalovic picked up his fourth foul, at the 11:09 mark.
“It affected the game,” Evans said. “We had some younger guys out there with less experience. It really affected our game.”
Edwards, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, tied his season-high in points. As Topalovic watched from the bench, ISU’s 6-foot-8 Blake Truman struggled to handle the Gonzaga transfer on the low blocks.
“He scored on Novak too,” Evans said on Edwards. “Blake is 6-foot-8 on a stretcher. He is not as big and as strong as Novak is. That other kid is a humongous individual.”
With Luzcando, Mocsan and Topalovic on the bench, the Vikings cut the lead to five mid-way through the second half and were within one after Edwards sank an and-one free-throw a few possessions later.
“They kept throwing it down low to the big guy,” Dowd said. “They just hit shots. It’s hard to beat a team when they hit shots.”
The Vikings completed their 16-point, second-half comeback when Bryce Canda drained a three from the wing with 3:57 to play and PSU took its first lead of the game on its next possession when Deontae Strickland faked a three and drove to the basket for a wide-open layup.
“They made some adjustments in the second half and we weren’t as organized,” Mocsan said.
After winning its first three conference games of the season, the best start in Big Sky play since 2006-07, ISU has now lost its third consecutive game and will host Sacramento State Saturday night.
“We got rattled a little bit,” Dowd said. “We got sped up and down the stretch we didn’t execute. That is a good team. We got beat by a really good team.”