Co-Editor-in-Chief/ Sports Editor
POCATELLO – A career night for Novak Topalovic lifted the men’s basketball team to a 71-65 home win over visiting Sacramento State Saturday night at Reed Gym.
Topalovic’s line includes a laundry list of career-highs, which include points (25), rebounds (17) and field goals made as the junior went 12-of-14 from the field.
On Thursday, the game plan was to push the tempo and beat the Portland State press by chucking up any and every open look from behind the three-point arc. The fast-paced, up-and-down game ended with a combined 170 points. The Bengals made 10 three-pointers and shot 48 percent from behind the arc against the Vikings, but on Saturday, ISU went 1-of-8 from three in the second half and shot 24 percent from behind the arc.
“This is going to be like going to the dentist and you know you have to get some teeth pulled,” said head coach Bill Evans. “Tough. Tough game.”
Saturday’s game was a much slower tempo, featuring hard-nosed defense which was met with fundamental half-court offenses, where open looks were minimal. This forced ISU to completely change its game plan.
Sac State doesn’t have a 7-foot-1, 290-pound center like Portland State does. Instead, the tallest player in the Hornets starting five is Joshua Patton, who stands 6-foot-8, four inches shorter than Topalovic. Sac State rarely double-teamed Topalovic, so he went off.
“That was part of our scouting report,” Topalovic said. “We wanted to get the ball inside right away and feel it out. It paid off.”
Topalovic scored eight of ISU’s first 13 points, but the two teams never separated in the first half, as both shot over 50 percent from the field, turned the ball over a combined six times and were both perfect from the foul-line despite being the bottom two Big Sky teams in free-throw shooting.
In the second half, Sac State went nearly five minutes without a made field goal and made two of their first 11 second-half shots, allowing ISU to go on a series of short runs to extend the lead out to double digits.
But the Hornets chipped their way back into the game, eventually cutting the lead down to five mid-way through the second half and memories of Thursday night’s 16-point blown second-half lead lingered inside of Reed Gym.
“I would have been worried if we hadn’t been successful tonight,” Evans said.
Late in the second half, Sac State amped up its defensive intensity and ISU responded by turning the ball over four times in three-minutes and 20 seconds.
The Hornets cut the lead down to two when Izayah Mauiohooho-Leafa sank a three from the corner while two Bengals desperately closed out.
But Topalovic responded with a dunk on the other end, one of three that brought the Reed Gym crowd to its feet.
“Every time you get those dunks on the home court it feels good,” Topalovic said. “You energize everybody and gets the crowd going. It’s always a plus.”
After Geno Luzcando, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, uncharacteristically turned the ball over, giving Sac State another glimmer of hope, Luzcando, who holds the all-time steals record for ISU, stole the ball back to set up Topalovic with his game-winning dunk, a ferocious two-handed slam that served as the game’s dagger. a
The win snaps a three-game losing streak and puts ISU back in the thick of the Big Sky Conference race.
“I’m relieved,” Evans said. “Fans are fickle. We had a pretty good lead against Portland State and they whittled their way back into it and ended up winning the game and I thought to myself, if this happens again I may have to take a dive somewhere.”