Vandals win third in a row; down NMSU

IDAHO (14-11, 6-4 WAC) WON ANOTHER THRILLER, knocking off New Mexico State (17-8, 6-3 WAC) Thursday night 59-58 in the Cowan Spectrum. Led by junior center KYLE BARONE on a night Idaho's normally potent perimeter shots weren't falling, Idaho won their third in a row and have dropped the WAC's top two teams. Saturday Idaho aims to extend the streak, hosting Louisiana Tech in the Cowan (8pm).

A never-say die attitude, solid defense, and a 6-10 junior center who, to quote his coach, "took it to another level," combined to power the Idaho Vandals to (another) thrilling win at the Cowan Spectrum Thursday night. This time it was the second-place New Mexico State Aggies who fell 59-58 in a game where Idaho did not play terribly well, but the Aggies could not put the game out of reach as Idaho made the visitors pay with another stunning last-second victory.

The Vandals have now beaten conference leader Nevada on the road and second place NMSU in a six day stretch…and don't forget to add in a last-second one-point non-conference win over Seattle University Tuesday night. Idaho is now 14-11 on the season, 6-4 in the WAC, and is collecting tie breaker advantages left and right. Next, the Vandals host Louisiana Tech Saturday at 8 p.m.

The Aggies started the game on fire, scoring the first 14 points in the paint and had a 10-1 advantage in points off turnovers as the Vandals could not take care of the ball…not a good combination against the biggest -- arguably most talented -- team in the WAC.

However, the Vandals seem to be gaining confidence in themselves with each game, and Thursday night kept battling. Six minutes into the game New Mexico State had a 5-1 edge in blocked shots, and the Aggies built a nine-point edge (25-16) with 6:07 left in the first half.

For some reason, however, NMSU seemed to lose concentration, playing with less intensity, and the Vandals kicked their game up a notch and struck back. Idaho held a 15-6 scoring edge in the last six-plus minutes of the first half, including buckets by Djim Bandoumel, Landon Tatum and a buzzer-beater by Mike McChristian to tie the score at 31.

The Aggies built another lead (eight) after the half, but the Vandals answered again with an 18-12 second half rebounding edge, tightened up the defense, and kept making plays until the Aggies, leading 58-57 and with the ball, could not get a shot off and turned the ball over with 21.3 left in the game.

Idaho worked offensively before using its last time out with 9.3 seconds left to set up a play. The ball came in from the north sideline and wound up in Barone's hands near the top of the key. As All-Conference Aggie McKines cut him off from a possible drive to the bucket, Barone threaded a perfect pass down the lane to Bandoumel who sank the easy layup to make it 59-58 in favor of the hometown Vandals with just 5.4 seconds left in the game.

The Aggies called their last time out and set up a play to get the ball into McKines' hands. But with Barone in his face, a last-second attempt at a three was well off the mark and Idaho's third consecutive victory was notchd.

By the end of the game the Vandals out-rebounded the Aggies 35-31, held a stunning 12-9 edge in second chance points, and outscored the NMSU bench 14-12.

Asked what his team did to change the course of the contest, coach Don Verlin said, "That's a good question. We changed our defensive coverage…a little bit. We started doubling post-to-post a little bit. I thought that changed the complexion of the game. We got a couple of turnovers early when we went to that coverage. I thought we settled in and played a little bit better after that first little bit. It's always hard to adjust to New Mexico State's quickness and size, and I thought we did a much better job after the first eight or ten minutes adjusting to what they have to offer. They're so physically imposing that, for lack of a better word, they intimidate you a little bit. Our guys would tell you they weren't intimidated, but they're big. They're physical.

"I thought our guys did a great job of battling all night long. I thought our guys did a great job executing our defensive game plan tonight. We switched in and out of our man, our zone. We switched our coverages down low in the post. We switched our ball screen coverages throughout the game. I thought we were able to keep 'em off balance," Verlin added.

"I thought Kyle Barone did a real nice job even though McKines (whom Barone covered much of the game) might have been their leading scorer (with 12 points after averaging 18 coming in), but he went 5 for 16. I thought we had a hand in his face all night long. I thought our guards did a nice job on (Hernst) Laroche (3-for-9). This game was won in rebounding. I don't know how many times they've been out-rebounded this year, but that's where this game was won. We battled our tail off on the offensive glass and on the defensive glass."

Had the Vandals been able to convert some outstanding looks on offense, the game may have been more one-sided and less hair-raising.

Verlin gave a lot of credit to the Aggie defense, with NMSU winning the turnover battle 17-14 and holding the Vandals to 1-for-10 shooting on threes. "I thought offensively we missed some easy shots, but they (NMSU) have that effect on you…They're big in there. Those are big guys. I thought even late in the game Djim had a couple easy looks at the basket. I thought we had some open three-point shots early in the game that we didn't make, but that's why I was so proud of our guys tonight…we might have been struggling a little bit offensively, but I didn't think our execution was bad. Our shots weren't going in, but we found a way to win a game where we were able to hold someone down defensively, and I thought that was the key to the game. We held them to 15% from three and 42% overall and we out rebounded 'em. That was a workman's effort tonight from our basketball team."

Individually Barone had perhaps his best game as a Vandal: 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocked shots and 1 turnover as well as providing a defensive presence against the Aggies. In crunch time with two minutes left and Idaho down three, Verlin said the 6-10 junior seemed to take his game to another level. "He probably played one of his best games since he's been here, and I thought he made huge plays defensively. I thought he made huge plays on the boards. I thought he hustled and got that late rebound. You've got to give him credit. He obviously made the game winning play tonight. They did a good job guarding it, McKines overplayed him, he ad libbed out of the play, drove it down the lane, dumped to Djim for the game winning play, and that wasn't anything we drew up. We had our play going and (McKines) kinda over-extended on that and Kyle made a great play. The stat that I love for Kyle Barone is four assists, one turnover. That was a key stat in this game. He was as good these last two games -- Seattle U and at Nevada -- as he's been and I couldn't be happier for him. He's playing like the all-league player that he is."

The Aggies put a lot of pressure on the Vandals on the perimeter, but Verlin's team responded shooting nearly 60% from two-point range. "When they went strong out we were getting it down in there and scoring our ball. They were putting a lot of pressure on Landon (Tatum). That was their game plan. Their game plan was to work our guards in, and I thought Landon battled all night and made the plays when he had to."

Mike McChristian also had key contributions going 4-for-4 from the floor with an assist and a steal. "Awesome game," Verlin said about the junior guard. "He's probably the player of the game. I thought he turned the tide. Mike hasn't played in a couple of games. Wonderful kid. Stephen (Madison – 10 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, a block and a steal) came out of the game and I threw Mike out there. I thought he gave us a huge lift. I thought he made some great plays. I thought he was active defensively. He had a big-time assist. It was great to see him set up and make those plays. Probably won the game for us."

"We've been playing pretty good basketball lately except for the first half at Fresno," he said. "I like where our team is at right now. Hopefully we can keep it going."

Saturday's game is the second game of a double header against La. Tech. The women open things at 5:30 a.m. and it will be Cancer Awareness night with anyone wearing pink admitted free to both games.

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