MOSCOW, Idaho – Of the 1,105 fans at Cowan Spectrum on Thursday night, more than a few chuckled when Sim Bhullar – New Mexico State’s 7-foot-5, 355-pound center – moseyed out of the paint early in the game to guard 5-10 Glen Dean.
Idaho coach Don Verlin probably didn’t see that matchup coming, but he did have one thing pegged: The Vandals could take advantage of Bhullar’s presence on the court by going small.
With a three-guard lineup on the court for much of the night, Idaho parlayed a late-game surge and key offensive rebounds to dispatch preseason WAC favorite NMSU, 73-67.
The Vandals (9-14, 3-6 WAC) played with poise. They committed just six turnovers and perhaps most remarkably, outrebounded the Aggies and their behemoth front line.
“I thought our mental focus was really good all week, and bottom line, we were the most aggressive team tonight,” Verlin said.
Even though NMSU (17-8, 6-3) has struggled on the road, this still registers as a sizable upset. The Aggies were more than 200 spots ahead of Idaho in the RPI and were coming off of a 23-point win over WAC-leading Utah Valley last week.
Plus, they throttled Idaho by 24 points last month in Las Cruces.
“We went down to Las Cruces and it was bad,” Idaho senior point guard Dean said. “I think everybody was self-motivated to not let that happen again.”
Idaho, which had lost eight of 10 games and was just 1-6 at Cowan Spectrum, used a 14-3 push late in the second half to take its first lead since early in the game. Dean and Connor Hill finished off the run with 3-pointers to stretch UI’s advantage to 64-58 with 5:31 left.
This was Idaho’s fifth win all-time against the Aggies, who have been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. NMSU leads the series 24-5.
“It does us a lot of good, I’ll tell you,” Verlin said. “Makes that locker room a lot funner to be in.”
Little-used center Paulin Mpawe was a catalyst in the final 10 minutes, grabbing four rebounds (three on the offensive end) and apparently getting robbed of another board and three-point opportunity when the officials awarded what looked like his follow shot to Sekou Wiggs.
After missing the last matchup with NMSU, Wiggs had 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, while Stephen Madison scored a game-high 24 points to carry Idaho offensively.
“I can’t tell you how good I thought those guys played,” Verlin said.
The Vandals trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but they scrapped their way to a few hard-earned baskets with Bhullar patrolling the paint and trailed just 36-32 at the break.
One of the keys, Verlin said, was drawing Bhullar away from the basket and making him guard ball screens.
“We were able to kind of attack him a little bit,” Dean said.
Idaho hosts Texas Pan-American on Saturday before finishing the regular season with five of its last seven games on the road.
Idaho 73, New Mexico St. 67
New Mexico St. (17-8, 6-3)—Eldridge 5-11 2-4 12, Ross-Miller 0-4 0-0 0, Nephawe 2-3 1-2 5, Mullings 9-18 2-4 20, Dixon 2-4 1-2 5, S. Bhullar 4-5 0-1 8, Baker 1-3 0-2 2, Aronis 4-9 0-0 12, Buovac 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 28-59 6-15 67.
Idaho (9-14, 3-6)—Hill 3-10 2-2 10, M. Scott 4-11 2-2 11, Seck 2-6 0-0 4, Madison 8-18 6-8 24, Kammerer 0-1 0-0 0, Dean 2-5 0-1 5, Wiggs 6-9 4-5 16, Callandret 0-0 0-0 0, Mpawe 0-1 1-2 1, Jiles IV 0-0 0-0 0, Egbert 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 26-63 15-20 73.
Halftime—New Mexico St. 36-32. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico St. 5-21 (Aronis 4-9, Buovac 1-2, Baker 0-1, Mullings 0-3, Eldridge 0-3, Ross-Miller 0-3), Idaho 6-18 (Madison 2-5, Hill 2-7, Dean 1-2, M. Scott 1-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—New Mexico St. 34 (S. Bhullar, Mullings 7), Idaho 38 (Madison 8). Assists—New Mexico St. 15 (Mullings 4), Idaho 8 (Dean, M. Scott 2). Total Fouls—New Mexico St. 16, Idaho 17. A—1,105.