LAS VEGAS – Like so many eager travelers before them the Idaho men’s basketball team came to Las Vegas with small odds and big dreams. With a record that won’t impress any postseason tournament’s committee the Vandals were going all-in, either coming home with an NCAA tournament ticket in hand or nothing at all.
The Vandals played their hand and came away with barely enough for the bus ride home, losing to New Mexico State 77-55 in the Western Athletic Conference championship game.
The fifth-seeded Vandals (16-18) managed a pair of upsets during their time in Las Vegas, knocking off No. 4 seed Kansas City and No. 1 Utah Valley. But against NMSU (26-9) UI met a shark whose cards it couldn’t match.
“I thought we played pretty well in this tournament, but tonight New Mexico State played better,” coach Don Verlin said. “We couldn’t get any stops … basically they dominated us in every phase of the game.”
It can’t be said that the Vandals, winners of six of their last eight games weren’t ready to play. They raced out to an 8-3 lead, frustrating the crowd of 1,518, which tilted heavily toward the Aggies.
Then the magic ran out.
NMSU scored at will, going on an 18-5 run to take a comfortable lead that would only grow cushier.
“I thought our team battled,” Verlin said. “There was a point in the season where we could have (given) up, but we didn’t.”
The Aggies had the best player on the floor, and the biggest. Conference MVP Daniel Mullings scored when his team needed him to and wowed the fans with a tomahawk dunk following a backdoor from a half-court set.
He finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting and could have doubled it had there been any need to.
But it was the mammoth Sim Bhullar who posed the biggest problem for the Vandals, one they could never fix. Standing at 7-foot-5 and pulverizing the scales at 355 pounds, Bhullar was named the tournament MVP after the game.
Bhullar was automatic down low, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, the Vandals defenders little more than a mild nuisance.
More consequential was Bhullar’s work on the defensive end, where he limited UI’s Stephen Madison to 3-of-9 shooting. The Aggie center planted NMSU’s flag firmly in the paint on both ends of the floor and the Vandals were outrebounded 38-21.
“He’s really difficult to prepare against because you have to put so much attention on him, you know with what we decided to do was front him and help on the backside,” Verlin said. “And that (exposes) you to a little bit of offensive rebounding.”
A bright spot for the Vandals was the play of Mike Scott, who finished with 14 points.