MOSCOW — Missing one of its best players and nursing another back from injury trouble wasn’t an ideal starting point for the University of Idaho women’s basketball team.

Add to that the fact that the Vandals’ opponent featured the leading scorer in the Big Sky Conference, and Friday’s home game against Southern Utah wasn’t going to be as easy as some of the teams’ previous meetings.

But a hot-shooting second quarter, clutch free throws in crunch time and 41 bench points helped the Vandals hold off the Thunderbirds 69-64 at Memorial Gym. It improved Idaho’s home record to 4-0 this season and marked the Vandals’ 15th consecutive win against SUU.

Idaho (5-4, 4-1) got the win despite the absence of starting post Natalie Klinker, who is among the leading rebounders in Division I this season. Gina Marxen led the way with 14 points and eight rebounds in playing all 40 minutes. She was helped by Beyonce Bea and reserves Hailey Christopher and Gabi Harrington, who added 13 points each.

It was Harrington’s first game since Dec. 5.

“It was a really high-intensity game,” said Christopher, whose 13 points marked a season high. “We had some great stops there at the end and I think that’s ultimately what led to us being successful and coming out on top.”

Idaho was in control for most of the game, but Southern Utah was pesky in the fourth quarter. The final period featured six lead changes, the last one coming on Christopher’s layup with 3:36 on the clock. But SUU never yielded, and got within 66-64 with 15.2 seconds remaining.

Harrington and Christopher combined for three free throws in the final 13 seconds to finally put it away and cap a quarter in which the Vandals went 12-of-15 at the line.

Idaho converted 11 consecutive tries from the line after Christopher’s go-ahead layup to temper the Thunderbirds’ rally.

“Tough, gritty battle back and forth,” Vandals coach Jon Newlee said. “I thought we executed great down the stretch and made key free throws.”

Without Klinker, the 6-foot-1 senior averaging 11.5 rebounds per game, Idaho was severely outmanned on the glass. Southern Utah, which leads the Big Sky in rebounding margin at plus-12 per game, was better against the Vandals, pulling down 66 boards — including 26 on the offensive end — to Idaho’s 37.

The advantage led to 19 second-chance points and eight more shot attempts for the T-birds (3-3, 0-1).

Newlee did not provide a reason for Klinker’s absence after the game. He called her “day-to-day” and said “we’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings” regarding the teams’ rematch at 6 p.m. today.

Klinker missed a win against Seattle and a loss to Arizona just before Christmas. Idaho’s combined rebounding margin during those games was minus-35.

Thankfully for the Vandals, her absence was allayed by Harrington’s return.

The graduate transfer from Montana hadn’t played since starting Idaho’s first two games of the season, Dec. 4 and 5 against Sacramento State. She checked in at the 8:31 mark of the second quarter against SUU and helped Idaho surge ahead.

She converted a steal into a layup a few seconds after she entered the game, then two possessions later, assisted Marxen’s 3-pointer. She also assisted Nina Carlson on a bucket inside and made a 3 of her own, eventually ending her five-minute stint in the quarter with seven points on 3-of-3 shooting, two assists, one rebound and one steal.

Idaho led 18-16 when Harrington checked in. When she went back to the bench at the 3:05 mark, her team was up 33-21.

Her final stat line included six rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 17 minutes.

Harrington missed the previous six games because of injuries. She walked off the court with her right lower leg in a walking boot after the game.

“Gabi was great,” Newlee said. “She really came in and gave us big energy in that second quarter ... and it was great to see her back on the floor tonight, just playing hard and doing the things she has done. We’ve missed her, absolutely, and she came through big tonight.”

Harrington’s resurgence coincided with Idaho’s strong quarter. The Vandals led 18-16 after a start-and-stop opening frame that featured 17 fouls, but settled in and made 9 of 18 shots in the second to stake a 39-27 halftime advantage.

It swelled to 41-27 in the opening seconds of the third quarter, but then Idaho cooled off and SUU made its run. Liz Graves scored seven consecutive points to spark a 9-0 surge to make it 41-36, and later a 6-0 spurt, highlighted by a Madelyn Eaton 3, got SUU within 43-42.

The Thunderbirds took a 52-49 lead at the 6:41 mark of the back-and-forth fourth. Before that, they hadn’t led since they were up 7-6 in the first.

After shooting 50 percent in the second, Idaho was 3-of-13 (23.1 percent) in the third.

“Credit to (Southern Utah), they really brought some pressure and you’ve got to fight through that sometimes,” Newlee said.

Graves, who entered the game leading the Big Sky in scoring at 18.6 points per game, didn’t attempt her first shot until the 2:50 mark of the first and didn’t score her first points until there was 4:33 left in the second. She finished with 14 points and added a game-high 15 rebounds for her third double-double this season, but keeping her quiet for as long as Idaho did was crucial in building a lead.

“That was definitely a big key was just stopping, sitting in a stance and being able to keep her in front of us,” Christopher said.

Cherita Daugherty scored 18 points and Darri Frandsen chipped in 12 points and 14 boards for the Thunderbirds, who shot 30 percent from the field. Idaho scored 20 points off of 16 SUU turnovers.

The Vandals recorded a season-low turnover total for the second straight game. They only coughed it up seven times against SUU, six days after posting nine turnovers at Northern Arizona.

SOUTHERN UTAH (3-3, 0-1)

Daugherty 5-14 7-9 18, Graves 6-14 1-2 14, Frandsen 4-12 3-5 12, Eaton 3-11 0-0 7, Satini 0-2 0-0 0, Ballena 2-7 3-4 7, Thornberry 0-4 4-6 4, Kamps 1-1 0-0 2, Barrington 0-4 0-0 0, Johnston 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-70 18-26 64.

IDAHO (5-4, 4-1)

Marxen 4-11 3-5 14, Bea 4-10 5-8 13, Kirby 0-1 1-2 1, Alexander 0-3 0-0 0, Pulliam 0-1 0-0 0, Christopher 5-9 3-4 13, Harrington 3-7 6-6 13, Atchley 2-11 2-3 7, Gandy 3-8 0-1 6, Carlson 1-1 0-1 2. Totals 22-62 20-30 69.

Southern Utah 16 11 18 19—64

Idaho 18 21 9 21—69

3-point goals — Southern Utah 4-15 (Daugherty 1-2, Graves 1-2, Frandsen 1-2, Eaton 1-2, Satini 0-1, Johnston 0-1, Thornberry 0-2, Ballena 0-3), Idaho 5-19 (Marxen 3-5, Harrington 1-3, Atchley 1-4, Bea 0-1, Kirby 0-1, Pulliam 0-1, Christopher 0-2, Gandy 0-2). Fouled out — Frandsen. Rebounds — Southern Utah 66 (Graves 15), Idaho 37 (Marxen 8). Assists — Southern Utah 10 (Daugherty 4), Idaho 9 (Marxen, Christopher, Harrington 2). Total fouls — Southern Utah 25, Idaho 20.

Guernsey can be reached at mguernsey@lmtribune.com, (208) 848-2268 or on Twitter @MD_Guernsey.