Less than a month ago New Mexico State handed Idaho its worst men’s basketball loss of the season, a 78-54 defeat in Las Cruces, N.M. But Idaho got revenge Thursday night with a 73-67 win over the Aggies in the Cowan Spectrum, Idaho’s first top-75 RPI win of the season.
Idaho’s 23-8 second-half run against the Aggies lasted 7:20 and gave the Vandals a lead they would never relinquish. Idaho pulled ahead 67-60 with less than four minutes to play and spend the rest of the game furiously fighting off the Aggies. New Mexico State pulled within four points with less than three minutes to play but never got any closer. Idaho improves to 9-14 overall and 3-6 in Western Athletic Conference play and gets a boost of confidence after a series of close defeats in league play. NM State falls to 17-8 and 6-3 in the WAC.
“I couldn’t be happier for the guys in the locker room,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “It’s always hard on your fans, it’s always hard on your coaching staff, but it’s really hard on the players to lose close games. Those are the guys putting in the work and I couldn’t be happier for those guys who’ve been busting their tails and everybody contributed tonight in a great win.”
The Vandals were led by senior Stephen Madison, who poured in 24 points and added eight rebounds and two steals. Madison’s 24 points move him into fifth-place on Idaho’s all-time scoring list with 1,335 points, passing Steve Weist’s (1973-76) 1,334 career points.
Freshman Sekou Wiggs came up one point shy of his career-high, finishing with 16 on 6-of-9 shooting, Mike Scott added 11 points, three rebounds and two assists, and Connor Hill added 10 points and three boards in the game.
Sophomore Paulin Mpawe played 10 minutes, all in the second half, and came up with four rebounds, including three momentous offensive boards.
Idaho shot 41.3 percent from the field while NM State connected on 47.5 percent of its shots, but the Vandals owned a 38-34 rebounding edge over the taller NM State team, and held a 16-12 advantage in second-chance points. Idaho also did a good job taking care of the basketball, finishing with just six turnovers -- one more than the team’s lowest total this season – and the Vandals had an 8-6 edge in points off turnovers.
“Guys just stepped into their shots with confidence and didn’t think about the end results,” Idaho senior Glen Dean said. “They just stepped up and knocked them down. Coach said all week just be aggressive, and that was everybody’s mentality the whole game and that freed up our minds.”
Dean finished with five points for Idaho, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 6:16 to play that gave the Vandals a 61-58 lead. Hill added to Idaho’s lead on its next possession with a 3-pointer of his own to put the Vandals ahead by six.
NM State was led by 20 points from Daniel Mullings while DK Eldrigde and Kevin Aronis each added 12 for the Aggies. Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State’s 7-foot-5 center finished with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and added seven rebounds and five blocked shots.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Wiggs said of the challenge of facing Bhullar’s presence. “You’re trying to figure out a way to score over him. That doesn’t work. Then you try to go around him. That doesn’t work. It’s not impossible. He’s big, he’s a good player and a good shot-blocker and a presence down there, but there’s always a way that you can get around him or score over him. You just have to figure out those ways.”
Idaho wraps up its three-game home stand on Saturday when Texas-Pan American visits the Cowan Spectrum at 7 p.m. The last time the Vandals and Broncs got together Idaho won 86-85 in double-overtime. After that game Idaho will be on the road for five of its final six WAC games leading into the conference tournament Mar. 13-16 in Las Vegas, Nev.
“There’s no question it’s anybody’s conference,” Verlin said of the parity in the WAC. “I think the conference tournament is going to be anybody’s ball game. Most of our games are on the road but who know what could happen. There’s not a team that we can’t beat in this conference and not a team I don’t expect to beat. What we’ve got to do is keep getting better. I thought we played one of our better games and hopefully we can continue to do that.”