MOSCOW, Idaho – Connor Hill wouldn’t put the blame on his teammate. And Don Verlin didn’t criticize anyone but himself.
But that didn’t lessen the sting of the last 3 seconds for the Idaho men’s basketball team in a 71-70 loss to New Mexico State at Cowan Spectrum.
After falling behind by 17 late in the first half, Idaho forged a tie with 3.5 seconds left with two Kyle Barone free throws. On the ensuing inbounds play, though, Marcus Bell was overly aggressive after coming up to pressure the inbounds pass.
Bell barreled into NMSU’s Daniel Mullings in an attempt to steal the ball and was whistled for an obvious foul. Mullings then connected on the second of his two free throws with 2.7 seconds left to give the Aggies (10-8, 4-2) the win.
The Vandals’ third straight loss – all in Western Athletic Conference play – was the latest late-game adventure for the team that dropped to 6-9 and 2-3 in the WAC. They fell in overtime at Utah State after leading in the final second of regulation and frittered away a late seven-point advantage Thursday versus Denver.
“The game at Utah State, we should have fouled,” Verlin said. “Tonight we shouldn’t have fouled. I didn’t have my team prepared tonight. I didn’t have the right guys on the floor, didn’t have my team ready for that situation. I take complete responsibility for that last game.”
In one form or another, Idaho has failed to finish off teams or come through down the stretch at least five times this year. It started on Nov. 17 against Montana and has been a consistent story line.
Saturday night, with 998 on hand, UI responded from a stagnant first half to claw back from a deficit that Verlin said felt like “a billion (points) down.” Hill and Stephen Madison hit big 3-pointers late, and Barone was clutch at the line to pull the Vandals even.
But Bell’s ill-timed aggressiveness wiped it away.
“I guess he felt like he could go for the steal,” said Hill, who had 17 points. “And if he would have got it, he probably would have laid it in. So we can’t blame him. We’re all a team here. It’s just a mistake.”
The Aggies, the preseason pick by the coaches to win the WAC, made nine of their first 11 shots and built an early 14-point lead. After Idaho regrouped, closing to within 28-20, NMSU reeled off a 14-5 run to send UI into the break with its largest halftime deficit this season.
Idaho had nine fewer field-goal attempts than NMSU in the first 20 minutes, a result of NMSU’s overwhelming size and better energy than Idaho.
Freshman Sim Bhullar, a 7-foot-5, 355-pound center, blocked three shots and bothered several more – especially close-range attempts from Barone – while 6-8 Bandja Sy was a nuisance on the perimeter defensively.
“It’s probably the biggest person I’ll ever go against,” Barone said of Bhullar, who finished with 16 points. “You can’t move him. He’s pretty skilled for how big he is.”