MOSES LAKE — The Big Bend Runnin’ Vikes will need to win six of their remaining eight games to be in the discussion of qualifying for the NWAC tournament.
On Saturday afternoon, they ended a three-game skid with an everybody’s-stats-get-well kind of game, beating Blue Mountain 118-78 with one of their biggest point productions of the season. The Runnin’ Vikes (13-6, 3-5 NWAC East) have gone 3-5 since opening the NWAC East Jan. 2 against the defending NWAC champion North Idaho College. Saturday’s blowout win snapped a skid, but more importantly, it was one they had to have as they push toward that fourth and final playoff spot in the East Region.
“Right now we’re focusing getting to .500 in the league. If we can get to nine wins out of 15 games, you’re probably going to get in,” Vikings coach Minto Scott said. “We’re going to need to win six of the next eight games. Five of those are at home, so it’s doable.”
They probably won’t have the services of Denis Ulyanchuk of Moses Lake, who has had knee issues since the opening game. Joey Andrews, the second-leading scorer on the team, rolled an ankle against Treasure Valley, and is out three weeks. He says he’ll be back for the final four games, but it’s wait and see for the 6-foot-5 sophomore from Riverton, Utah, who’s averaging 19 points a game.
As for Blue Mountain (4-15, 2-6 NWAC East), it was just a nice way to stop the bleeding and get back on the winning track.
Ben Kuiper came off the bench and gave the Runnin’ Vikes a career night with 24 points and seven rebounds, four coming off the offensive glass. Former Almira/Coulee-Hartline standout Payton Nielsen has been starting at the small forward in place of the injured Andrews. The former ACH Warrior was large on the boards with 18 rebounds and 11 points for the double-double. In fact, Nielsen had 10 of his game-high 18 rebounds in the first half, which is more than the Timberwolves had as a team at the intermission.
“I was confident in my shot and my teammates were getting me the ball,” Kuiper said. “We have a lot of injuries right now, so there’s more responsibility for the bench to be more productive.
“I felt really confident tonight, like I was playing free out there and the shot was falling. I wasn’t thinking. I was just being aggressive and putting the ball in the hoop.”
They got a combined 84 points from their starters, including 27 out of sophomore Koby Huerta, who’s ranked fourth in the NWAC in scoring. Big Bend coupled that with 34 bench points. Kuiper did the heavy lifting with 24, but Donte Brown had six and Dakota Fidler added four.
“I’ve just been working hard in practice and now that we have some injuries, it’s next man up,” said Brown. “We just lost three in a row, so this win gives us a lot of confidence with some really important games coming up.
“We’re just trying to keep the foot on the gas pedal and playing hard for 40 minutes, and bench production is critical. We all have to pitch in.”
Mauricio Smith finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. Huerta had the game-high 27 to go along with five assists and five rebounds. Serph Decker had seven rebounds and 13 points and Miles Brown had his best defensive effort of the season with five blocked shots, to go with 17 points and five rebounds.
The next two are at home, starting with Columbia Basin College (4-16, 1-7) on Wednesday. The Runnin’ Vikes host Spokane (15-6, 6-2) on Saturday. Now here’s where it gets tricky because they are at North Idaho (19-2, 8-0), then at Yakima Valley (5-15, 2-6).
If they can get through that stretch with just the one loss, they have a shot in the last four games with Treasure Valley (7-11, 5-3), Wenatchee Valley (11-8, 3-5), Blue Mountain (4-14, 2-6) and Walla Walla (12-9, 6-2) to wrap up the regular season.
Blue Mountain 38 40 - 78
Big Bend 60 58 - 118
Blue Mountain - Dante Clayton 15, Mekhi Foreman 5, Hayden Brooks 21, Jeremiah Hillard 15, Adam Hardman 2, Trent Garza 20. Totals: 36 16-24 78
Big Bend - Mauricio Smith 16, Koby Huerta 27, Serph Decker 13, Payton Nielsen 11, Miles Brown 17, Donte Brown 6, Dakota Fidler 4, Ben Kuiper 24. Totals 58 14-20 118