Idaho (6-9, 2-3 Western Athletic Conference) overcame a sluggish first half that saw New Mexico State (10-8, 4-2 WAC) take a 42-27 lead at the break – the Vandals’ largest halftime deficit of the season – but Idaho rallied on 60 percent overall and 55.6 three-point shooting in the second half.
“For whatever reason, hung over from the Utah State or Denver games or whatever the case may be, we didn’t come out with fire against the team picked to win our league,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said about the first half performance. “We hung with our game plan and we were able to fight a little bit better in the second half.”
Idaho didn’t go on a huge scoring run to cut NM State’s big lead, they simply chipped away throughout the second half. A Stephen Madison triple with 43 seconds to play tied the game at 68-68, but the Aggies got a layup from Bandja Sy on the next possession to take a two-point lead.
Vandal senior Kyle Barone was fouled with 3.5 seconds to go and he calmly drained both of the one-and-one free throws to knot the game back up at 70-70. Idaho junior Marcus Bell gambled on a steal on the ensuing inbounds and was whistled for a reach-in foul with 2.7 seconds left to send NM State’s Daniel Mullings to the line for a pair of free throws. He missed the first, but made the second to give the Aggies the win.
“I thought we competed, had some guys step up and make some shots and we executed pretty well down the stretch to come back from what felt like a billion down,” Verlin said. “There’s some bright things, but the bottom line is we’ve got to learn to finish games. We’ve had three games in a row with chances to win and we haven’t gotten any of them.”
Idaho shot 25-of-48 (.521) from the floor, 6-of-14 (.429) from 3-point range and a WAC season-best 14-of-15 (.933) from the free throw line. The Vandals out-rebounded the Aggies by a 29-25 margin, outscored NM State in the paint, 36-32, and on the fast break, 10-4.
New Mexico State had a big edge in points off turnovers with a 15-2 margin. Idaho gave up 11 possessions, while the Aggies turned it over just four times. Each team had eight assists in the game.
As a team, NM State shot 25-of-52 (.481) overall and 4-of-11 (.364) from 3-point range. The Aggies went 17-of-25 (.680) from the free throw line.
Barone tallied his fifth double-double in his last six games with game highs 18 points and 10 rebounds, while sophomore guard Connor Hill put in 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting. After missing his first six 3-point attempts in the game, Hill drained each of his last three and scored 15 second-half points to help spur the comeback.
K.C. Ross-Miller and Sim Bhullar tallied 16 points apiece, while Sy added 14 points for the Aggies. Mullings, who entered the game ranked second in the WAC with 19.4 points per game in league play, finished with just eight points on 2-of-9 shooting.
NM State outscored Idaho 23-9 over the game’s first nine minutes and stretched that lead to as many as 17 points on a Bhullar layup with 13 seconds remaining in the first half.
“We didn’t have any energy and we weren’t running our offense with pace,” Hill said of the first half. “In the second half we ran our offense with pace, we were hitting shots, we were getting stops and we were getting out in transition for easy layups and that got us back in the game.”
Idaho used a 7-0 run, starting at the 12:36 mark of the second half, to cut a 52-39 Aggie lead down to six points at 52-46. The lead never got back to double figures at that point and Idaho continued to whittle down the deficit leading up to the final minute’s drama.
The Vandals hit the road next week to face league-leading Louisiana Tech, which moved to 14-3 overall and 5-0 in WAC play with a 73-71 win at UTSA on Saturday. The Vandals will also swing by UT Arlington. The Mavericks took a 91-74 road win at Texas State on Saturday to move to 8-6 overall and 3-2 in the WAC.
Idaho’s game at LA Tech on Thursday tips off at 4 p.m. (PT), while Saturday’s game at UTA tips at 5 p.m. (PT).