At this time last Thursday the Vandals appeared to have major issues. Since then, all they've done is post two of the most impressive wins by a WAC team in conference play this year.
Thursday night, Idaho came back for a thrilling 59-58 victory over second-place New Mexico State. Read on for more about the surging Vandals.
If Nevada's double-digit lead holds over Hawaii, the Vandals will be in third place, a half-game ahead of UH and just a half-game behind NMSU for second. That's significantly better than their position just a week ago after losing at Fresno. Amazing what two high-level wins can do for a team.
Before I post my game story, here are few notes:
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – In the last week the Idaho Vandals have done more than prove they can hang with the WAC’s elite. They’ve shown they can a deliver a knockout blow too.
The Vandals on Thursday night came from eight points down in the final 5 minutes for a 59-58 victory over New Mexico State in a pivotal WAC men’s basketball contest at Cowan Spectrum.
Djim Bandoumel converted the go-ahead layin – after a nifty drive and pass from fellow big man Kyle Barone – with 5.6 seconds left to vault the Vandals past the second-place Aggies (17-8, 6-3).
Idaho (14-11, 6-4) has won three straight, including consecutive wins against the WAC’s two top teams after a major upset at league-leading Nevada last week.
“Two great wins for our program,” UI coach Don Verlin said. “We’ve been playing pretty good basketball lately, except for the first half at Fresno (State). I like where our team is at. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Barone, a 6-foot-10 junior, kept the Vandals afloat in the closing minutes with six straight points and stout defense on Wendell McKines, the WAC’s leading scorer. McKines finished with 12 points, below his season average of 18.3.
The Vandals, down one, turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions in the final 90 seconds. But NMSU missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation and was called for a shot clock violation with 21.3 seconds left.
And that’s when Barone made two huge plays. He slipped past McKines on the perimeter and kicked to Bandoumel, whose man had moved to help on a driving Barone. Bandoumel hit the open shot, and the 1,159 at the Spectrum erupted.
NMSU drove the length of the court, but could only get an off-balance 3-point attempt from McKines with Barone in his face. The desperation shot didn’t touch the rim as the clock expired.
Asked what the key to the win was, Barone said, “I think just getting stops and ending up with the rebounds there at the end. I think for us it’s about stops more than anything.”
Barone finished with a game-high 16 points and eight rebounds. He tied a career high with four assists with only one assist.
“He played one of his best games since he’s been here,” Verlin said. “I thought he made huge plays defensively. I thought he made huge plays on the boards.”
Verlin said Barone ad-libbed the final play, getting McKines to over-commit while having the presence to find Bandoumel near the hoop.
“He put the ball on the floor and I think my man went for help,” Bandoumel said. “(Barone) has a great IQ and he’s unselfish.”
The Vandals trailed for much of the night. But over the last 4 minutes of first half they drew even with NMSU with a 10-2 run, punctuated by a wild play.
After a New Mexico State turnover with 1.4 seconds left, Barone launched a high full-court pass in the direction of several Aggies, who batted the ball down. But it was deflected to UI’s Mike McChristian, who banked in a 12-footer at the buzzer to make the score 31-all.
The Vandals, after getting outrebounded by 17 in a loss at NMSU last month, were plus-four on the boards Thursday. “This game was won on rebounding,” Verlin said. “We battled our tail off.”