MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho dropped its third consecutive men’s basketball game Monday, and each loss has been more excruciating than the last for a team with postseason ambitions.
But after the Vandals’ 75-72 Western Athletic Conference setback to New Mexico State in Cowan Spectrum, coach Don Verlin didn’t come off as frustrated or perplexed. No, he’s willing to be patient with a talented group that has yet to mesh.
“I thought we played hard,” Verlin said. “I thought we gave it a heck of an effort. Those guys in that locker room, they care. And they busted their tail. They busted their tail all summer, and they busted their tail in practice.
“It might not be showing in wins and losses right now, but we’re getting better. I think you’re going to see this team play some good basketball. And we’re not that far off.”
As has been the case for much of the season, Idaho couldn’t make a defensive stand in crunch time. New Mexico State’s Jahmar Young exploded for 31 points on 11 of 18 shooting and splashed in 17 of his team’s 19 points in the closing minutes.
Young found open pockets in UI’s defense during critical possessions, and helped the Aggies move to 10-7 and 3-1 in the WAC.
Mac Hopson and Kashif Watson paced the Vandals with 17 and 16 points, respectively. But Watson had a close-range shot swatted in the final 2 minutes, and Kyle Barone missed a gimme with under 20 seconds left to seal the loss.
UI (8-7, 1-3) wasn’t haunted by free throw woes as it was in Saturday’s loss to Louisiana Tech, but turnovers again were a prominent theme. Steffan Johnson was charged with five in the first half and UI racked up 17 for the game.
“It’s very frustrating.” Watson said. “But we came out and had a lot of effort in the beginning; fought hard.”
Young and Jonathan Gibson traded salvos down the stretch for NMSU, both knocking down jumpers and cutting easily into the lane. Young eventually took charge, collecting 13 straight points to give the Aggies a 65-62 cushion with 3:31 left.
But the Vandals hung around, largely on the shoulders of Watson. The senior guard knifed into the lane and lofted a floater over 6-foot-11 Hamidu Rahman for a bucket, then tipped in a follow shot a couple minutes later.
Idaho canned 6 of 6 foul shots inside the 5-minute mark before Hopson’s miss with 26.5 seconds remaining. He hit the next to get the Vandals within 69-67, and Young followed by knocking down two free throws to set the stage for UI’s biggest possession of the game.
Down four with under 25 seconds left, the Vandals pushed it down the floor before Johnson found Barone in the paint. The freshman’s short look caromed off the side of the rim and the Aggies regained possession when the ball rolled out of bounds.
“We had a number of good opportunities and just didn’t get it finished.” Verlin said. “… We’ve got to find a way to finish those shots.”