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ISU MBB: Bengals head west for pivotal road series

February 15, 2018 GMT

Idaho State earned a much-needed split in its home series last week, picking up an 82-67 win Saturday against North Dakota. The victory snapped the Bengals’ 11-game losing streak against the Fighting Hawks, and gave ISU head coach Bill Evans his first career win against UND.

“It was a big win for our program to finally get over the hump against North Dakota,” Bengals redshirt sophomore guard Brandon Boyd said Monday.

Up next for ISU (11-12, 6-6 Big Sky Conference) is a pivotal road trip against Sacramento State and Portland State. The Bengals beat Sac State 71-65 at home in January, two days after blowing a 16-point, second-half lead in an 87-83 loss to the Vikings.

With six games remaining until the conference tournament, ISU is in sixth place in the 12-team league standings. The Vikings and Hornets are chasing the top half of the conference in eighth and 10th, respectively, giving Idaho State favorable odds to feed off its momentum from the North Dakota win, sweep the upcoming road series and move closer toward a top-four spot and first-round bye for the conference tournament.

“(North Dakota) is in the past now,” Boyd said. “We’ve got two tough games coming up this weekend, so we’ve got to really get focused for that.”

LAST TIME OUT

ISU led by as many as 17 points in Saturday’s long-awaited victory over North Dakota. The win gave seniors Geno Luzcando and Erik Nakken their first triumph against the Fighting Hawks in their careers, and – at least temporarily – bucked ISU’s trend of losing double-digit, second-half leads.

Two days earlier against Northern Colorado, the Bengals lost a 52-42 second-half lead in an 85-82 loss. The Bears shot 56.6 percent from the floor and scored 22 points from the free-throw line.

The loss marked the third time in six games and fourth time this season the Bengals lost a game they once led by double digits in the second half.

Idaho State has also let multiple second-half leads of 10 points or more dwindle to one-possession wins.

“It’s more of a focus as a group,” Boyd said. “A mental focus and a mental toughness as a group just to keep those leads and withstand those leads and just get over the hump.”

OFFENSE ON BRINK OF MILESTONE

Idaho State’s 82-point output Saturday was the team’s eighth 80-point game this season, matching the total from the breakout 2015-16 campaign that ended with the Bengals in fourth place in the Big Sky standings.

ISU’s next 80-point game will set a new high for 80-point games in Evans’ six-year tenure in Pocatello. No Bengals team has scored 80 points or more as many times since the 2005-06 squad did it 12 times. That team finished 13-14 and tied for seventh in the Big Sky.

Idaho State has five players averaging 10 points per game or more, led by Jared Stutzman’s 14.5 ppg. The only other Big Sky team with five players averaging double figures is North Dakota.

Six Bengals have led the team in scoring in a game this season.

“I don’t know how teams can really scout for that,” Boyd said. “It’s a really well-rounded offense.”

BOYD PICKS UP SCORING PACE

Boyd has scored 20 points or more in three consecutive games, upping his season scoring average to 13.7 ppg. Boyd leads the team with 16.3 ppg against Big Sky opponents.

Boyd was in the starting lineup for the first four games of the season, but was benched after shooting 14 for 47 (30 percent) in those games. He scored a career-high 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting in ISU’s home opener against Utah Valley, but didn’t shoot better than 22.2 percent in the other three early-season games.

Boyd found his rhythm and is shooting 50.4 percent from the field in conference play, compared to 38.6 percent in nonconference games. In his last three outings, Boyd has scored 22, 26 and 27 points on 28-of-45 shooting (62.2 percent).

“I’m in more of a rhythm,” Boyd said. “I know what I really need to do to help this team win. I have a lot of confidence from our coaches and all the players on the team that I just need to go out there and play, so that helps me out a lot.”

Evans said a key in Boyd’s turnaround is his aggressiveness and ability to draw fouls off the dribble. Boyd leads the Bengals at 78 percent from the foul line, and has shot a team-high 59 freebies in Big Sky play.

“There’s a difference between being a good shooter and a good scorer,” Evans said. “Brandon’s a good scorer. He can drive the ball to the basket, he can make free throws.”

NO PERFECT LINEUP

Evans started his seventh different lineup combination Saturday against North Dakota, reinserting Boyd for the first time since Nov. 22 and starting Gary Chivichyan for the first time since the Nov. 11 season opener at Arizona State. Ten players have started at least one game this season.

Evans also tinkered with his lineups during the last two seasons, starting 11 players each in 2016-17 and 2015-16.

Evans has used four starting lineups in 11 games since starting power forward Kyle Ingram was ruled out for the season early in the conference schedule.

“I’m looking for my best team,” Evans said. “I’m not sure what that is yet still. I knew Kyle was a big part of it. I’m not sure who I’ll start this week.”

SCOUTING SAC STATE, PSU

ISU starts its road series Thursday at Sacramento State at 8 p.m. The Hornets (6-19, 3-9 Big Sky) rank among Division I’s worst in scoring average (66.6 ppg), rebounding margin (minus-4.2) and free-throw shooting (65.9 percent). Sac State matches Idaho State’s unhurried half-court tempo, averaging 66.1 possessions per 40 minutes to ISU’s 68.9.

Adversely, Portland State (15-10, 5-7 Big Sky) ranks third in Division I with 76.2 possessions per 40 minutes and deploys a full-court pressure defense with an aggressive offensive rebounding mentality. The Bengals face the Vikings at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s going to be two totally different games,” Boyd said. “Portland State ... they’re going to press the whole game, so we’ve got to have good ball control. For Sac State on Thursday, we’ve got a tough guard against Justin Strings. He’s a very good player.”

ISU had success against Portland State’s pressure defense in the teams’ first meeting. The Bengals used their speed and athletic guards to break the press and find open shooters at the 3-point line or easy layups under the hoop, shooting 61.3 percent from the floor in the first half.

In the second half, PSU backed its pressure off and forced ISU to run a half-court offense. The Bengals took six fewer shots and tallied 32 points after skating to 51 points before halftime. Portland State rallied from a 16-point, second-half deficit and won 87-83.

Against Sac State, ISU led by as many as 12 points in the second half before the Hornets cut the deficit to two points later in the frame. The Bengals held on for a 71-65 win.

Strings, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, tied a team high with 14 points, and led the Hornets with six rebounds and three assists.

For the season, Strings ranks seventh in the Big Sky in scoring (17.8 ppg), fourth in rebounding (7.2 rpg), tied for sixth in blocked shots per game (1.1) and second in minutes played per game (35.6).

“He can score at all three levels,” Boyd said of Strings. “He’s going to demand a lot attention from all of our players, and we’re going to have to find a way to try to limit his touches and limit his scoring.”

GAME INFO AND SERIES HISTORIES

Video of this week’s games will be streamed live on watchbigsky.com, with live stats available at isubengals.com. Jerry Miller will have the call on 102.5 FM.

Idaho State owns a 29-20 all-time series edge against Sac State, but has not won in Sacramento since the 2011-12 season. Portland State leads it all-time series with the Bengals 30-20.