Vandal women beat NMSU 60-59

In one of the most unusual women's basketball games played in recent years at the Cowan Spectrum, the Idaho Vandal women shot 18.2% from the floor in the first half against New Mexico State Saturday afternoon but somehow stayed close to the visiting Aggies, took their first lead of the game with 61 seconds left, then survived a wild finish to pull out a 60-59 Western Athletic Conference victory.

To be honest the first half was ugly (Idaho was 6 for 33 from the floor), but that was all forgotten in the excitement of the saga of the closing seconds of the game. The Aggies, who led 23-19 at the half, posted their biggest lead of the game – nine points – with 11:07 remaining in the game.

But Idaho would not go away. The Vandals, who had never led in the game, whittled the lead to one point with 4:32 left. The margin fluctuated between one and three as the teams continued to stare each other down, trading baskets and free throws.

With 90 seconds left and New Mexico State up by one, the Aggies blinked. Tabytha Wampler missed a 5-footer and Yinka Olorunnife rebounded for the Vandals. Idaho worked the ball down the floor and called time out with just over a minute to play. Idaho would get the ball on the north sideline. Coach Jon Newlee called up a play that had Shaena Kuehu inbound the ball to Charlotte Otero. Once she made the pass Kuehu broke for the basket. Otero hit her with a drop pass and Kuehu cruised in for the layup to make it 54-53 Vandals with 1:01 left. The fun was just beginning.

Over the next 61 seconds there were five lead changes as the teams continued to trade baskets and free throws. With 17.1 second left and the Aggies leading 57-56 following a 15-footer by Crystal Boyd, the Aggies threw on a full court press. The ball was inbounded to Otero who dribbled the length of the floor and made the layup to put Idaho up 58-57. The Aggies put the ball in play and drove down the floor calling time out with 8.5 seconds remaining. As play was ready to resume Idaho called time out.

With both teams now out of timeouts, play resumed.

The Aggies gave the ball to Jasmine Lowe who drove to the hoop. Olorunnife established position between her and the basket and in the subsequent collision Love was called for the charge, turning the ball over to Idaho with 7.1 seconds on the clock.

The ball went in to Olorunnife who was fouled immediately by Boyd. Olorunnife sank both free throws to build the lead to 60-57. The Aggies took the inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor. Kaitlyn Soto drove on Olorunnife and this time Olorunnife was called for the foul with 2.5 seconds left. Soto made the first to make it 60-58 Vandals. She missed the second and in the scramble for the rebound the whistle blew and with three-tenths of a second on the clock Olorunnife was called for a foul, her fifth of the game. As Olorunnife left the game Madison Spence stepped to the line for the Aggies.

Spence made the first shot to make it 60-59. The second shot was off the rim, and a buzzer-beating tip-in try by Wampler also bounced off the rim.

The Vandals won the battle and escaped with the win.

Despite their struggles in the first half, Idaho came back in the second half to shoot an outstanding 55.2% from the field, but the Aggies were even better hitting 58.3% from the floor and 67% from beyond the arc. The difference was in free throws: Idaho was 13 of 17, NMSU 6 of 12. The Vandals also outscored the Aggies 22-8 in points off turnovers and 11-3 in second chance points. Finally, Idaho had a 37-35 lead in rebounds and limited the Aggies to just 6 offensive rebounds.

After the game coach Jon Newlee could smile and joke about the dismal first half. As the teams were heading to the locker room for the intermission his path crossed NMSU coach Darin Spence, a good friend. "I told Darin…'Boy we set basketball back about 100 years, huh?' He said, ‘Maybe 200.' We both knew how ugly it was," Newlee said. "I'd like to credit defense, but not when you're missing layups right and left, missing wide open 3's. They were missing shots, we were missing shots. I told our guys at halftime the good news is we're only down four. I can't believe we're only down four. It could be a lot worse than this."

Newlee said he felt comfortable when the final horn blew. He said the game was in doubt "…all the way to the end. On that tip off miss, I thought ‘That could go in.' It was back and forth those last two minutes. Our players did a great job of executing our stuff down the stretch as they did. Each team hit big shots. It came down to the missed free throw…We're doing a better job attacking the rim and finishing."

Olorunnife closed out with a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. As is so often the case when they win, the Vandals showed exquisite balance with Rachele Kloke netting 15 points, 5 rebounds and a steal. Otero had 14 points, 3 assists and 5 steals, and Kuehu had 12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and two steals. Idaho had a 9-5 edge in steals.

In an incidental note of irony, the play that gave the Vandals their first lead was nearly identical to one Newlee dialed up in the WAC tournament last year against Utah State. At that time the play also worked as designed, but a Vandal slipped in the key on the drive to the hoop, lost the ball, and USU escaped with the win.

The Vandals will be at home Wednesday for a 7 p.m. game against San Jose State. The game will be played in Memorial Gym because of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival taking place in the Dome. Idaho is now 4-7 in the WAC (6-18 overall) and in sixth place, one-half game ahead of 4-8 Utah State. The top three spots are pretty well set with Fresno 12-0, Nevada 9-3 and Louisiana Tech 8-3. From there it's New Mexico State at 6-6, BSU at 5-6, Idaho, USU, Hawai'i (3-10) and San Jose State (2-10). The top eight teams participate in the conference tournament.

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