Vandals fall by 5 to NMSU in WAC opener

NEW MEXICO STATE WON THE WAC TOURNEY LAST YEAR and is one of the favorites again this season. The Aggies are a solid team, and the Vandals have been very competitive with them in recent years. Wednesday night in the Cowan Spectrum both teams opened WAC play in a game that was tight from beginning to end. But the Aggies made the key plays in crunch time, and NMSU escaped with a 74-69 win.

As the clock ticked down and the Aggies had a 72-69 lead with 12 seconds left in regulation, New Mexico State's Gordo Castillo was fouled. He missed the first three throw, then followed it up by missing the second and the Vandals' Brandon Wiley got the rebound. The Vandals, with no time outs left, streaked down the floor with the ball in the hands of Landon Tatum. With about six seconds left Tatum drove towards the basket. Troy Gillenwater of the Aggies stepped in and was credited with a blocked shot. Tatum fouled a split second later, Gillenwater made the free throws, and the Aggies posted a five point win.

The question on the minds of the Vandal fans who braved icy roads and blizzard conditions to watch the game was, "Why did he go for two when we needed three points to tie?"

In the post game media meeting, Vandal coach Don Verlin supplied the answer. "That's what good teams do. They find a way to win the close ones. You've got to give them credit," he said. Verlin explained it looked like Tatum was driving the lane to draw defenders towards him, hoping to kick the ball back out to the perimeter for a three-point try. A heads-up defensive play by Gillenwater destroyed that plan.

"I think (Gillenwater) jumped in his passing lane," Verlin said. "I think (Geiger) was trying to get it to Jeff (Ledbetter) and (Gillenwater) jumped in his passing lane, and (Geiger) thought maybe he could draw a foul and get an 'and one.' Obviously we wanted to get a three-point shot up or have a chance to tie the ball game."

Beyond that one key play at the end of the game, it was a very close battle from beginning to end. The final outcome probably was decided by the experience of the Aggies versus the youth of the Vandals. "There were times tonight we really showed our inexperience, and that was tough," Verlin said. "I thought we did not do a very good job in the first half taking care of the basketball. When we had chances to be six or eight up at the half, I thought we were really sloppy with ball. In the second half, though, we took care of the ball better, but then we didn't do the little things as far as rebounding."

Idaho had a 31-29 lead at the half, but in the second stanza NMSU shot 63% from the floor, got 15 points from Gillenwater who was playing his first game in several weeks, and held an 8-5 edge in second chance points.

Verlin said offensive rebounds by the Aggies were key in the final outcome. "It seemed like we'd get a defensive stop and they'd come up with the offensive rebound, and two were off free throw line errors which are totally unacceptable," he said "You can't do that. We work on it constantly."

Solid games from some Aggies who had been out of action for several games was also a factor. "You've got to give them some credit," he said. "Gillenwater hadn't played in five or six games and got 22 points, 7 rebounds. He's quite a player in this league, and Tyrone Watson just came up with every big offensive rebound when they needed it. That's what good teams do. They find a way to win the close ones."

On a positive note, Vandal front liners Kyle Barone and Luiz Toledo turned in outstanding games after starter Brandon Wiley had to sit down picking up his third foul with 10:43 left in the first half. Barone checked out with 22 points, 9 rebounds and a steal, and Toledo had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. On several occasions in the second half Toledo totally dominated play in the key at both ends of the floor. Verlin was pleased.

"I thought Kyle Barone played probably one of his best games since he's been here," Verlin said. "He played how I expect him to play and how he expects himself to play: 22 points and (9) rebounds against those guys, that's a good outing. Luiz Toledo…I thought he rushed it a little bit in the first half, but he had 14 points and 9 rebounds and very active on the glass in the second half. I thought those guys played extremely well. Brandon Wiley was hampered by foul trouble all night. He never really got in the flow of the game, and I thought that really hurt us."

Barone, a 6-10 sophomore, said he enjoyed competing against one of the best front lines in the conference. "It was fun competing against those big guys, the biggest we've played this year for sure," he said. "It was a good game to play. I thought if we could have made some plays down at the end we could have won it, but…"

His frustration with failing to come up with key plays echoed Verlin's. "The whole game we should have had some things, maybe turnovers, maybe take care of the ball a little more, but we just didn't make the plays coming down to the end and they did… I was disappointed we didn't come out with the win…We did a lot of good things out there. I thought we played well as a team."

Verlin reflected on Idaho's 3-17 mark against New Mexico State. "It would be nice to get over the hump," he said. "The U of I through the years hasn't had a lot of success. They've beaten us (17) times; so it would be nice to get over the hump and find a way to win one of these close ones.

"We've just got to continue to tighten up this ship and continue to grow as a team and continue to work," the coach said. "This team is getting better, but we've got to get better faster than what we're doing. We've got to find a way to win these close games. That's what you have to do if you're going to compete for a WAC title."

The Vandals will be home again Friday night against Louisiana Tech. The game has been designated "Vandal New Year's Eve Raffle" night and all fans in attendance will be entered into various raffles that will occur during the game. Prizes include: 2011 Vandal Football season tickets, Vandal apparel and merchandise, Idaho memorabilia and much more.

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