In what proved to be an overwhelming task for the Vandal men’s basketball team, it was Idaho (14-11, 6-4 WAC) who overwhelmed New Mexico State (17-3, 6-8 WAC), defeating the Aggies 59-58 Thursday evening in the Cowan Spectrum.
Idaho overcame a seven-point Aggie lead with less than five minutes remaining and with five seconds left to play, Kyle Barone slipped an unanticipated but brilliant pass into the hands of Djim Bandoumel, who was wide open for the lay-up. The Aggies put the ball into the hands of WAC leading scorer Wendell McKines but McKines’ deep jumper guarded tightly Barone had no chance, sending the Vandals away with their third consecutive victory.
“We had kind of an idea of what we wanted to do after the inbounds play and I felt like I could get by my guy and I saw Djim’s guy help and there was nobody guarding him to help on help so I dished it off to him and he finished it,” Barone said.
Against a much bigger, much more physical New Mexico State team, Idaho won the battle inside the key, scoring more points in the paint and out-rebounding the Aggies, a team who out-rebounded Idaho 38-21 when the two met one month ago.
Idaho, the WAC’s leading three-point percentage team, were a dismal 1-10 from three-point range Thursday and the same Vandal team that averages almost 67 percent from the free-throw line were 50 percent for the second consecutive game, this time shooting 6-12 from the line.
It was the efficient, yet effective Idaho defense though that held the visitors to their lowest point total of the year including both conference and non-conference contests. To further emphasize Idaho’s defensive success, the Aggies lead the WAC in total scoring offense with an average of almost 77 points-per-game. The game also marked the second time this year Idaho has been victorious scoring less than 60 points.
Though Barone and Bandoumel counteracted the Aggie size and speed with their strong presence underneath the basket, a less likely face in junior college transfer Mike McChristian picked the perfect time to heat up. McChristiaon hadn’t seen action in the team’s last three games and hadn’t scored since the Vandals’ loss in Las Cruces last month but it was the junior who propelled Idaho to a 10-2 run in the first half that would conclude with a McChristian bank-shot buzzer beater to tie the score at 31-31.
McChristian concluded with a career-high eight points off of a 4-4 shooting clip.
Coach Don Verlin made it clear that McChristian had been nothing more than a practice squad player in recent weeks, but his efforts were worthy of game MVP honors.
“Awesome game, probably the player of the game,” coach Don Verlin said. “I thought he turned the tides, Mike hasn’t played in a couple of games, wonderful kid, has been on the scout team and hasn’t gotten a lot of run for whatever reason… It was great to see him step up and make those plays, probably won the game for us.”
Down the stretch, the Vandals trailed by as many as seven with five minutes to play and while the clutch shooting was inexistent, the hard-nosed defense was.
Idaho’s 8-0 run to close the game consisted of four consecutive missed Aggie shots and two missed free throws.
While Bandoumel was the one that gave Idaho it’s crucial go-ahead basket, the Quebec native was the first one to praise Barone for yet another dominating performance.
“Coach called big plays for him and he was just going hard,” Bandoumel said. “And KB (Barone), I always say to him, when you have the ball nobody can stop you in that league and just go hard and good things are going to happen.”
Bandoumel polished off an impressive night with a career-high six blocks while his counterpart Barone tallied a game-high 16 points. Barone’s nine rebounds were also a game-high and his four assists were a career-high.
“It’s always hard to adjust to New Mexico State’s quickness and size and I thought we did a much better job in the first eight or ten minutes of adjusting to what they have to offer,” Verlin said. “They’re so physically imposing, for the lack of a better word, they intimidate you a little bit… I thought our guys did a great job of battling all night long.”
Idaho host La. Tech to close out the home WAC season Saturday evening at 8:05 PM in the Cowan Spectrum. The Bulldogs (11-13, 3-6 WAC) are coming off of three consecutive losses and fell at the hands of the Vandals 90-88 last month in Ruston.