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Idaho's late-season mojo was no match for New Mexico State's size and athleticism.
The Vandals' best conference tournament showing in more than two decades ended one win shy of an NCAA tournament bid on Saturday when they fell quietly to New Mexico State, 77-55, in the WAC championship game in Las Vegas. Idaho shot just 38 percent and was outrebounded 38-21 by the much bigger and more physical Aggies.
After winning four straight and six of seven, Idaho's season ended at 16-18. This was its first conference title game since 1993. UI was seeking the school's first NCAA tournament bid in 24 years.
NMSU, which has won three straight WAC tournament crowns, controlled the paint with center 7-foot-5, 355-pound center Sim Bhullar and athletic big man Tshilidzi Nephawe. Bhullar, the tournament MVP, had 14 points and nine rebounds while Nephawe went for 12 and 7.
The Vandals knew they couldn't match up with NMSU's monstrous front line. But when the shots stopped falling after going up 8-3, Idaho was in trouble. The Aggies unleashed a 15-3 run and led by double digits most of the rest of the way.
Senior Stephen Madison led the Vandals with 17 points in his final game at Idaho, and point guard Mike Scott had 14 points. Shooting guard Connor Hill, who helped UI get on a late-season roll, was 0-for-5 from the 3-point line and finished with six points.
Suddenly, everything is coming together for the Idaho men's basketball team. One more win, and it will find itself in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years.
The fifth-seeded Vandals showed poise in crunch time to knock off No. 1 seed Utah Valley 74-69 in the WAC semifinals in Las Vegas. Their fourth straight win — and sixth in seven games — put them in their first conference championship game since 1993.
UI last went to the NCAA tournament in 1990.
Both the Idaho men and women will play in the WAC title game on Saturday. The Vandal men will face the winner of the New Mexico State-Cal State Bakersfield game at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
Senior Stephen Madison was superb again for the Vandals (16-17). He scored 25 points and grabbed five rebounds, after his 26-point, 17-rebound performance on Thursday against UMKC. Mike Scott carried the Vandals in the first half and finished with 14 points, while redshirt freshman Ty Egbert came up with a team-high seven rebounds and hit 2 of 4 free throws late.
Idaho's ineptitude in the WAC tournament? It's history. Senior Stephen Madison put in a masterful performance and his teammates stepped up in the final minutes as the Vandals vanquished the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 73-70, in the quarterfinals of the WAC tourney in Las Vegas.
This was Don Verlin's first win in the WAC tournament after going 0-5 to start his tenure at Idaho. And it was only Idaho's second win in this event since joining the WAC before the 2005-2006 season. It came at the right moment, too — the Vandals will depart for the Big Sky Conference this summer.
“It feels awfully good, and Stephen and I enjoyed a special moment because we hadn’t gotten one yet,” Verlin said.
Fifth-seeded Idaho (15-17) moves on to the semifinal tomorrow night, when it will face No. 1 seed Utah Valley at 6 p.m. The Vandals lost both regular-season matchups against UVU, but the games were decided by a total of six points.
Keep reading for more.
Since joining the WAC, the Idaho men's basketball team has won one conference tournament game, and that was an opening round affair in 2007. The Vandals are 1-7 in the event all-time and 0-5 under Don Verlin. But Idaho's postseason struggles go back even further: Since 1997, the program is 2-14 in conference tournaments as members of the WAC and Big West. That's right — 1-7 in the WAC, 1-7 in the Big West.
The Vandals will try to break through this afternoon against UMKC when the quarterfinals of the WAC tourney get under way in Las Vegas. The topic of our preview for this morning's paper was Idaho's suddenly aggressive transition game. We've posted a longer version of the story below, as well as a few quotes from coaches and players.
The WAC men's and women's basketball tournaments will again be held at one site — Orleans Arena in Las Vegas — over the next four days. The top-seeded Idaho women (22-8) get things started Wednesday at noon with a quarterfinal matchup with Chicago State. The Vandals are looking to get back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, but the situation is different this time. We wrote about this in our preview.
The Idaho men take on UMKC on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. The Vandals are just 1-7 in the WAC tournament since joining the conference in 2005-06, and Don Verlin is 0-5. We'll have more on this tomorrow. Idaho star Stephen Madison was named to the US Basketball Writers Assocaition's All-District VIII team on Tuesday, two days after being named a first-team all-WAC player. Meanwhile, guard Connor Hill was selected as the WAC player of the week on Monday — the seventh such honor for a Vandal this year.
Back with my game story from Idaho's 74-68 loss to San Jose State in the WAC men's tournament quarterfinals. The Vandals went scoreless over the last three minutes.
Afterward, Idaho learned it will play at San Francisco at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the CollegeInsider.com tournament. More information here.
In the other quarterfinal game, New Mexico State defeated Nevada 66-60. The Aggies will face No. 2 Boise State in Friday's semifinals.
The Idaho men's basketball team knows its opponent for its quarterfinal matchup in the WAC tournament. San Jose State held off Hawaii in the first game of the event and will take on UI at noon tomorrow. The Vandals and Spartans split their season series.
You can read Jim Meehan's advance below.