It shouldn’t have come down to a Chidi Udengwu free throw, but it did.
Still, amid all the drama, Udengwu came through, making a freebie with 1.5 seconds remaining to finally ice Idaho State’s dramatic 71-67 win Saturday at Northern Arizona.
“We like to make it as ugly as we possibly can,” ISU coach Ryan Looney said in a postgame radio interview. “We know that, and we definitely did in stretches in both halves tonight, and we’re OK with it. That’s where we’re at right now.”
The Bengals (6-8, 3-2 Big Sky Conference) led by as many as 18 points in the second half and were up 16 with 3 minutes, 37 seconds to go after back-to-back dunks by Malik Porter and Coreyoun Rushin.
NAU (7-7, 1-4 Big Sky) didn’t let Idaho State coast from there, though, scoring 15 of the game’s next 18 points by coaxing ISU into bad turnovers and making a flurry of 3-pointers in the process. The run cut the lead to 70-67 with under 30 seconds to play.
After Rushin missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at the free-throw line with four seconds remaining, Udengwu drew a foul while battling for the rebound and made the second of his two shots from the stripe to finally put the game in the bag.
The victory snapped a two-game losing streak for the Bengals and was their first road win since Nov. 7 at Air Force.
“It’s a huge road win,” Looney said. “For a lot of our guys, the first Big Sky Conference win on the road. I think with a young group, it’s hard to figure out how to win after long days of travel.”
ISU built its 18-point lead thanks to Jared Stutzman and Chier Maker, who were otherwise quiet for most of the game.
The seniors came alive and combined to score 14 points during ISU’s 17-4 run that extended what was a four-point lead a few minutes earlier.
Stutzman bookended the spurt with a 3 and a layup, while Maker made back-to-back treys in the middle.
“Credit to our guys,” Looney said. “We were able to, in some timeout situations, make an adjustment with the offense.”
The sequence gave ISU some breathing room after a back-and-forth start to the second half and a momentum-changing swing to close out the first. NAU ended the first half on a 9-2 run to trim ISU’s 12-point lead to five going into the locker room.
Idaho State shot 48.1% from the floor and 7 of 18 (38.9%) from 3, while NAU finished at 44.4% overall and 8 of 21 (38.1%) from the arc. ISU won the rebounding battle 37-34 and assisted on 18 of 26 baskets.
Tarik Cool led ISU with 18 points, adding seven assists. Austin Smellie added 13 points, Stutzman had 10, Udengwu chipped in nine points and eight boards, Porter added nine points and six rebounds, and Maker contributed eight points and seven boards. Brooks DeBisschop led NAU with a career-high 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The win brings an end to a long few days for the Bengals.
After Thursday’s night’s home loss to Southern Utah, ISU boarded a bus at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, drove to Salt Lake City and flew from there to Phoenix. Their flight from there to Flagstaff, Arizona, was turned around halfway through to fix a mechanical issue.
ISU finally landed in Flagstaff at around 7:30 p.m. on Friday night, had a quick practice, late dinner and film session before Saturday’s 4 p.m. tip-off.
“And then our guys did what we wanted them to do, they sawed wood throughout the whole thing,” Looney said. “It’s a huge growth moment for our team to figure out that you’ve just got to fight through some adversity if you still want to have some success on the floor.”
ISU hosts Weber State on Thursday at Reed Gym.