More than halfway through the WAC season, it's clear Idaho can hang with the best the WAC has to offer. But this much is also true: The Vandals can't beat the conference's upper echelon teams. At least they haven't been able to yet.
Idaho rallied to forge a late tie at second-place New Mexico tonight, only to squander its last two possessions in a 76-74 loss in Lac Cruces. The Vandals (9-13, 5-7) turned it over with the game tied, then after NMSU hit two free throws, Kyle Barone's tipin came after the buzzer. Idaho fell for the seventh loss in its late 10 games, and its two losses to the Aggies have come by a total of three points. Said UI coach Don Verlin, "There’s not anyone who feels worse than those players in the locker room, because there’s two games in a row, for lack of a better term, where we gave it to them." More on the game below.
A WAC note: The University of Missouri-Kansas City will join the conference for the 2013-14 season. The Kangaroos will be one of nine teams in the WAC next season, joining Idaho, NMSU, Seattle U, Cal State-Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon (Ariz.), Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley.
Idaho plays at Denver on Saturday -- its second straight road game against one of the WAC's top teams. DU is tied with the Aggies for second place, behind Louisiana Tech.
Here's the UI media relations recap:
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Similar circumstances, same brutal result for Idaho men’s basketball in a 76-74 loss against New Mexico State on Thursday at the Pan American Center.
Idaho trailed by 11 points with six minutes to play and battled back to tie the game on a Connor Hill 3-pointer with one minute left. The Vandals fouled NM State’s Bandja Sy with 26 seconds to play and rebounded his front-end miss on a one-and-one free throw.
On the ensuing possession, Idaho turned it over and fouled New Mexico State’s Daniel Mullings with 14 seconds to play. He made both and Idaho missed three shots in the final seconds before senior center Kyle Barone’s tip-in that couldn’t beat the buzzer.
It was eerily similar to Idaho’s Jan. 12 game at the Cowan Spectrum in which the Vandals closed out a 17-point deficit and tied the game with three seconds to go, only to foul Mullings on the ensuing inbounds play in a 71-70 loss.
“We did a lot of really, really good things tonight,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. “There’s not anyone who feels worse than those players in the locker room, because there’s two games in a row, for lack of a better term, where we gave it to them.”
With the loss, Idaho slips to 9-13 overall and 5-7 in the Western Athletic Conference. New Mexico State moves to 16-8 overall and 10-2 in conference play.
Barone notched his sixth 20-point game of the season with 26 on 10-of-19 shooting, along with seven rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. Hill, a sophomore guard, notched a career-high 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting and cracked Idaho’s career top-10 with three 3-pointers. He already has 109 in his career, which is 10th-most in school history.
As a team, Idaho went 25-of-54 (.463) from the field and 7-of-12 (.583) from 3-point range. The Aggies went 30-of-56 (.536) overall and 8-of-18 (.444) from 3-point range. The main difference was at the free throw line, where Idaho was 17-of-21 (.810) and NM State was just 8-of-12 (.667).
The Aggies out-rebounded Idaho by a 32-28 margin, but got more out of their offensive rebounds. NM State had just nine o-boards to Idaho’s eight, but the Aggies turned their second chances into 12 points and the Vandals got just two from theirs.
Idaho turned the ball over just 11 times in the game, but nearly every one was of the offensive foul or traveling variety. The Aggies only had two steals in the game, but 13 points off Idaho’s giveaways. The Vandals scored 18 points off NM State’s 15 turnovers.
Mullings, NM State’s leading scorer, wasn’t much of a factor in the game until his late free throws, but in his stead, guards Kevin Aronis and Remi Barry came off the bench to combine for 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting. The duo entered the game averaging just 5.8 points per game, combined.
New Mexico State got 20 points on 8-of-8 shooting from center Sim Bhullar and 12 points each from Terrel de Rouen and Renaldo Dixon. Forward Banda Sy had nine points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
Verlin said that Idaho’s plan from the beginning was to compact the interior of the court to try to counter NM State’s size and athleticism, but the Aggies responded by hitting 3-pointers in open space.
“We felt like we had to make them beat us from three,” Verlin said. “They were making three a game, but they step up here and make eight. By keeping our defense packed in, we were able to keep them from driving the basket and drawing fouls.”
Up next for Idaho is a road trip to Denver, which is 14-8 overall and 10-2 in WAC play after a 72-55 home win over Seattle U on Thursday. The Pioneers took a narrow 55-49 win against the Vandals earlier this year at the Cowan Spectrum.