Either the Idaho Vandals are due, both to beat New Mexico State and advance in the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament, or they’re bound to spend the offseason wondering what happened in close games.
The answer will come at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, where No. 6 seed Idaho will tussle with third-seeded NMSU today at noon in the quarterfinals of the WAC tourney.
The winner advances to meet No. 2 seed Denver or Texas State on Friday.
The Vandals (12-17) have lost 11 games this season by single digits, and arguably their two most excruciating defeats came against New Mexico State (21-10).
They dropped a one-point decision at home to the Aggies after tying the game with 3.5 seconds, only to foul New Mexico State’s Daniel Mullings 80 feet from the basket to set up the game-winning free throw.
In Las Cruces, Idaho again drew even with NMSU in the final minute. But it couldn’t execute on the final possession in a 74-72 loss.
“We do owe them a game – or two,” WAC player of the year Kyle Barone said.
If the breakthrough happens today, it will be that much sweeter for fifth-year coach Don Verlin. He’s 0-4 at Idaho in the WAC tournament.
This is also the final year of the WAC tourney before seven of the 10 current members scatter for other, more stable leagues. Next season, UI, NMSU and Seattle U will be the only holdovers.
Idaho has been mostly competitive in its quarterfinal matchups the last four seasons, but it hasn’t had players deliver in the clutch. That’s also been the case for much of this season.
“We’ve just got to make the plays when the time calls for it,” Verlin said, “and we haven’t been able to do that.”
Still, junior wing Stephen Madison, UI’s second-leading scorer, could sense the team playing with more urgency the last two weeks. The Vandals have won three of four during that time and are playing their best basketball since December.
“I think the last couple games we’ve shown we’re ready,” Madison said. “We’re on the hunt to get this done and advance.”
New Mexico State has lost just twice since Jan. 1, and last week it handed Louisiana Tech its first conference loss.
First-team all-conference selection Bandja Sy is 6-foot-8 and likes to play on the perimeter, and mountainous center Sim Bhullar – listed at 7-5, 355 pounds – scored 16 and 20 points in the Aggies’ two games against UI.
Three Vandals honored
Barone, Madison, and guard Connor Hill were recognized by CollegeSportsMadness.com in its WAC postseason awards. Barone was a first-team choice, while Madison and Hill, a Post Falls native, were on the third and fourth teams, respectively.