All in all, Don Verlin has to be happy with the longest WAC road trip, in miles, for the Vandals. They gutted out an overtime win at Louisiana Tech on Thursday — their first-ever victory in Ruston — and tonight they hung with one of the league's elite teams, New Mexico State, for all but the final minutes.
We have details on UI's 80-68 loss to NMSU below.
Two things seemed clear after this one: The Aggies wore down Idaho and their star — Wendell McKines — was simply too good. He had 23 points (on just 12 shots) and 10 rebounds, while guard Hernst Laroche scored 20.
The Vandals were able create turnovers, and get buckets off them, but foul trouble, poor outside shooting and even poorer rebounding doomed Idaho. UI was outboarded 38-21 while NMSU shot 62 percent in the second half.
Idaho is now 9-9, 2-2 in the WAC with Utah State at home next Saturday. USU won at La. Tech tonight, and it is also 2-2 in league play. It's interesting to compare scores against common opponents — the Vandals lost a much-closer-than-it-looked game to NMSU tonight, while Utah State was steamrolled by 20 on Thursday in Las Cruces. Not sure what that says about next week's game.
Meanwhile, Nevada survived a major score against Hawaii at home. At 2-1, UH is definitely the surprise so far. The Wolf Pack and NMSU are both undefeated so far in the WAC.
More on the Vandals' loss below from UI media relations.
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The first half was exactly what head coach Don Verlin was looking for, but University of Idaho men’s basketball couldn’t maintain its energy in the second half and fell at New Mexico State, 80-68, on Saturday.
Idaho, which fell to 9-9 overall and 2-2 in Western Athletic Conference play, led by as many as nine points in the first half and took a 37-35 lead into the break, but fouls and road fatigue after its overtime win at Louisiana Tech on Thursday caught up with the Vandals as the second 20 minutes progressed.
“They just kind of wore us down there at the end,” Verlin said. “They just move you down there, move you down there and get a lot of fouls called, and tonight they made their free throws at a really good clip. That was really the difference.
“I thought we did some really, really good things tonight, we’ve just got to be able to sustain it and do it for a longer period of time.”
New Mexico State (13-5, 3-0 WAC) attempted 21 free throws in the second half and 32 in the game, compared to just 12 for Idaho. The Vandals were whistled for a season-high 25 fouls, 15 of which came after the break. Perhaps another sign of tiring was long-range shooting. The Vandals made four of their first eight 3-point attempts in the first, then went just 3-of-16 over the remainder of the game, despite getting several wide-open looks.
Idaho allowed NMSU to shoot an opponent season-high 58.7 percent from the floor (27-46). The Aggies also out-rebounded the Vandals, 38-21, including 12 on the offensive glass. As a team, Idaho shot 44.1 percent (26-59) from the floor and 33.3 percent (7-21) from 3-point range.
“We were in serious foul trouble in the second half – just about every guy out there had four fouls – so we went to the zone and the zone was working to get them to miss shots, but we couldn’t rebound out of it,” Verlin said.
The Vandals had struggled with turnovers in recent contests, but they reversed the role on Saturday and forced 18 NMSU giveaways, which they converted into a season-high-tying 22 points off turnovers. The Aggies held a 34-22 edge in the paint and the teams tied with 12 second-chance points apiece.
“I thought we did a good job there and I thought we had some more opportunities that we didn’t convert on the break,” Verlin said of his team creating turnovers.
The game was much closer than the final tally indicates – there were seven ties and six lead changes, and while the Aggies threatened to pull away many times in the second half, Idaho clawed back each time. A pair of Kyle Barone free throws at the 3:55 mark brought Idaho within three at 69-66.
Vandal sophomore Stephen Madison put in a layup at 2:21 to draw Idaho within four after a jumper and a free throw had extended NMSU’s lead to six, but the Vandals missed their final five shots in the last two minutes of the game and saw the Aggies make six out of seven free throws in the meantime to extend the lead out of reach.
Freshman Connor Hill bounced back from an 0-for-5 shooting day at Louisiana Tech on Thursday to lead Idaho with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including a 3-of-5 effort from 3-point range. He was joined in double figures by junior Kyle Barone and senior Deremy Geiger, each of whom added 11 points, while senior Djim Bandoumel dropped in 10 points. Geiger also led Idaho with four rebounds, five assists and three steals in the game.
McKines was credited with 10 rebounds in the game to lead all players, while NMSU’s Hernst Laroche scored 20, Hamidu Rahman added 12 and Tshilidzi Nephawe ad 10 off the bench for the Aggies.
“What we’ve got to do is get back home, get healthy, get rested and play a good Utah State team next Saturday,” Verlin said.
Idaho returns home next week for just one game – a Saturday date with Utah State (10-8, 2-2 WAC), which won at Louisiana Tech on Saturday, 69-66. That game will be the second half of an Idaho women’s-men’s doubleheader and is scheduled to tip at 8:05 p.m. (PT).