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New Mexico State stops Idaho in WAC opener

MOSCOW, Idaho – For a 10-point game, the Vandals’ loss to New Mexico State was quite the show for the few-but-rowdy fans at Idaho’s Western Athletic Conference basketball opener Wednesday.

Quite the show in aggressiveness, quite the show in fouls, quite the show in turnovers.

The Vandals (3-9, 0-1 WAC) committed 20 turnovers to the Aggies’ eight in their 78-68 loss.

Those were the key to the game according to Idaho coach George Pfeifer.

“We came out and we threw the ball all over the gym in the first 6 minutes, so we didn’t have any stability,” Pfeifer said. “They put just a little bit of pressure on us. … We definitely got sped up and took some errant shots.”

But rebounds helped Idaho bounce back from sloppy ball handling and foul trouble. The Vandals handily beat New Mexico (7-9, 1-0) on the boards, a category in which the Aggies lead the WAC.

Never down by more than nine points, and usually within six, UI answered nearly every Aggies run – until the end.

With 1 minute, 46 seconds left in the game and trailing 71-68, the Vandals came out of a timeout and failed to make a critical 3-pointer to tie the game.

“It was tough because, you know, we was there,” forward Clyde Johnson said. “All we had to do, if Mike (Hall) would’ve hit that 3, it’d tied the game up. Once we missed that and they came down and scored, that kinda killed us because it made it more than a one-possession game.”

Three more Vandals attempts yielded no results, and New Mexico State opened its lead to 10 by making 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute.

It was a humbling finish for the Vandals and their fans. Idaho led four times, but never by more than one point throughout the game at the Kibbie Dome.

“All of a sudden you’re in a two-point basketball game,” Pfeifer said, “and you go, ‘OK, this play and this play and this play down the stretch made the difference.’ Really? What if you had made some better decisions prior to that? That’s what we keep trying to tell our guys.”

Johnson said his team dug itself a hole with its mental mistakes.

“We gotta learn to take the ball, slow down with the ball so you can see the floor and see the plays,” he said.

Each team shot 50 percent in the first half. But New Mexico State came out on top in the second with 46 percent to Idaho’s 32. The five starting Aggies tallied double digits, led by Justin Hawkins, who shot his game-average 18 points.

Starting guard Hall led the Vandals with 15 points. Michael Crowell scored 11 points and had seven rebounds, and Johnson had 10 points.

Idaho’s free-throw shooting improved. During the break since their loss at Arizona State on Dec. 22, the Vandals worked hard on shooting from the line, Pfeifer said. It showed as they hit 14 of 18.

“We saw some fruits from our labor,” Pfeifer said. “We beat ourselves to death over the break as far as rebounding’s concerned, and this is a team that’s leading the WAC in rebounding. I think we got some mileage from that.”