MOSCOW, Idaho – Arkadiy Mkrtuchyan only had two exhibition starts and a handful of practices’ worth of experience coming into Idaho’s regular-season opener. But 15 seconds into the game it was clear the freshman was a go-to player.
The Vandals designed their first offensive set to go down low to Mkrtuchyan, where he laid it off the glass for the first points of his collegiate career.
They kept feeding him inside. Mkrtuchyan became the target of a handful of Mike Scott and Sekou Wiggs assists and led Idaho with 18 points in a 77-65 win Friday night over NAIA opponent Eastern Oregon at Memorial Gym.
“He can score it. He showed it, he proved it tonight,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “We thought we had an advantage inside … I thought he stepped up and delivered tonight.”
Mkrtuchyan, who grew up in Moscow – Russia – and played his final year of high school basketball in Portland, found out on Wednesday he was going to get the start as a reward for good practice habits and impressive performances in exhibition wins against Simon Fraser and Lewis-Clark State.
“My coach told me two days ago that he will start me and I have to work hard. I was happy inside but I didn’t do anything on the outside, I didn’t want to look like an idiot,” Mkrtuchyan joked.
Eastern Oregon didn’t have the size or skill in the post needed to muscle around the 6-foot-7, 235-pounder, who tied for the team lead with eight rebounds.
The Mountaineers countered from the perimeter. They sank seven 3-pointers in the first half. A game that may have supposed to feel more like Idaho’s exhibition wins instead turned into a 37-36 Vandals lead at halftime.
“It felt like a regular-season opener,” Scott said. “They gave us a challenge. Unlike the last two exhibition games, we didn’t come in here with a ‘We’re going to blow them out the water’ type of attitude. They were better than we thought.”
The defensive attitude changed in the second half. Idaho forced the Mountaineers farther off the 3-point line and didn’t concede a shot from beyond the arc until the 8:39 mark.
By then, Idaho was building momentum with its inside presence of Mkrtuchyan and Ty Egbert, who each had seven points to lead Idaho in the second half.
Egbert will feature in Idaho’s rotation off the bench this season. The rest of the rotation will be a work in progress as the preseason progresses, Verlin said.
All of Idaho’s scholarship players saw minutes, with the exception of Jake Straughan who will redshirt.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.