LAS VEGAS – Idaho was awfully close to beating New Mexico State twice this season before losing each game.
The third defeat was far less dramatic.
The Vandals’ season ended Thursday against the athletic, pressing, trapping Aggies, who forced 16 Idaho turnovers and shot 60 percent from the field in a 65-49 victory in the WAC men’s basketball tournament quarterfinals at the Orleans Arena.
This season goes in the books as the worst of coach Don Verlin’ Idaho career, and the Vandals’ 12-18 record is the school’s worst since an 8-21 finish in 2007-08, the year prior to Verlin’s arrival.
Still, the coach isn’t discouraged, even after finishing the season with a 16-point defeat to a team the Vandals had lost to twice by a combined three points.
“If you look at my five years since we’ve been here, it’s the winningest five years in the last 30 years of Idaho basketball,” Verlin said. “So I think it’s in good shape.”
It would be in better shape if the Vandals could get another year out of Kyle Barone, Player of the Year in the WAC this season. But the senior’s Idaho career is over after he made 8 of 10 from the field and led his team with 19 points.
That he attempted only 10 shots is a reflection of the Aggies’ defensive scheme, something coach Martin Menzies said his team worked on with its extra time to prepare.
“You always want the player of the year to get more than 10 shots,” Verlin said. “So we didn’t do a good enough job of getting him the ball, that’s for sure.”
Verlin said he wasn’t surprised to see NMSU (22-10) play a zone defense, though the Aggies bothered Idaho all game with their full-court pressure and half-court traps.
Daniel Mullings was the primary beneficiary, finishing with three steals and 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He helped NMSU score 25 points off the Vandals’ turnovers.
Idaho guard Connor Hill, who scored 14 points, struggled along with the rest of the Idaho backcourt to get the ball up the court after each Aggies made basket.
“It bothered me and it bothered us, I felt like, but (we) definitely could have done a better job with that,” Hill said.
Bandja Sy added 14 points for the Aggies, who scored often with the shot clock winding down and were efficient offensively despite little production from 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar.
Idaho fell behind by 12 points early in the second half after trailing by four at halftime, but made a 7-0 run to trim NMSU’s lead to 42-37 with 13:34 to play.
The Vandals never got closer. They scored only eight points in the game’s final 10 minutes as the Aggies cranked up their defensive pressure, forcing several turnovers that led to dunks and a game-ending 8-0 run.
“I thought tonight New Mexico State just wore us down with their pressure and their athleticism,” Verlin said. “And there in the second half we just ran out of gas.”
Along with Barone, seniors Wendell Faines, Mike McChristian and Mansa Habeeb played their final collegiate game.
“It hurts right now knowing I’m not going to be able to play again,” said Barone, who led the WAC in scoring and rebounding this season. “I thought this year we had a good enough team to make a run at this tournament, but like Coach said, they kind of just wore us out at the end. … We weren’t scoring, and we weren’t stopping them.”
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