Idaho men roughed up in WAC title game

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comMarch 16, 2014 

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Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick tries to avoid a tackle during a Nov. 30, 2013, game against New Mexico at Bronco Stadium.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

LAS VEGAS - The wait continues for the Idaho men's basketball team.

In the Vandals' first appearance in a championship game since the Big Sky days in 1993, Idaho ran into a buzzsaw Saturday in the WAC championship.

New Mexico State, the two-time defending tournament winners, used 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar to clog the middle, while the Aggies' athletic lineup went to work. The Aggies shot 55.8 percent in a 77-55 rout at the Orleans Arena, denying Idaho its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990.

"Hopefully it gives us some momentum, we're going back to the Big Sky next year," Idaho coach Don Verlin said. "… I was happy we could grind out two wins in this tournament. It would've been nice to get a third, this group deserved it, but we couldn't get it done."

Fifth-seeded Idaho (16-18) had a tough time dealing with Bhullar, the tournament MVP who checks in at 350 pounds, and 6-foot-10, 268-pound Tshilidzi Nephawe. The Vandals' starting center, Joe Kammerer, is 6-9, but no other regular is taller than 6-6.

Bhullar had 14 points and nine rebounds, while Nephawe added 12 points and seven rebounds. The second-seeded Aggies (26-9) had a 38-21 rebounding advantage and a 46-16 advantage in points in the paint. Conference player of the year Daniel Mullings, a speedy 6-2 guard, had 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

"They were huge," Verlin said, quite literally. "I thought our guys battled down there all night … we were fighting and pushing them off the block, but I thought they really hurt us driving to the basket, we couldn't keep them in front of us. They're a handful down there."

After Idaho jumped out to an 8-3 lead, New Mexico State responded with a 20-5 run to stretch the lead into double digits. The Aggies took a 39-25 lead into halftime, and the break didn't cool them off.

Idaho never got within 11 again, as the Aggies shot 56.0 percent in the second half, extending their lead to as many as 23 in the final minutes.

It was a rough end for Idaho, but ending the season on a 6-2 run with a spot in the title game was enough to keep the Vandals from hanging their heads much.

"There was a point in time where we could have given up, but we just kept on pushing, and I'm proud," Idaho junior Mike Scott said.

Senior Stephen Madison had 17 points for Idaho, while Scott had 14. Idaho shot 38.3 percent in the game, 2-of-13 from 3-point range.

Madison finishes as the school's No. 2 all-time leading scorer with 1,624 points. He earned all-tournament honors after scoring 68 points in three games.

Idaho had not won a WAC Tournament game until this, Verlin's sixth season, and got two before the season came to an end Saturday.

"It's always tough to end your career, end your season like that, but I can't be more proud of these guys for what we've done, beat expectations of what people thought we'd do here," Madison said.

Dave Southorn: 377-6420

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