EL PASO, Texas – It was remarkably similar to Thursday night's huge comeback at Eastern Washington, but the magic wasn't there for Idaho men's basketball on Saturday in a 64-60 loss at UTEP.
Idaho (3-4) trailed by 18 points, 52-34, with 12:02 to play, but rattled off a 17-2 run to pull within three points, 54-51, but UTEP (3-5) made just enough plays down the stretch to hold off the Vandal rally.
The Vandal men closed the gap to two points on two occasions in the final 90 seconds, but couldn't make the final push to tie or take the lead.
"We battled hard," Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. "This is a good UTEP team, a good UTEP program and a very well coached team. We didn't execute quite as well as I'd like to at the start of the second half again, but we were able to climb the hill back and get back within two."
More impressive than the run itself was probably the Idaho lineup that closed the gap. Senior center Kyle Barone and junior guard Stephen Madison, the team's two leading scorers this season, were on the bench as seven players scored during the run.
"It was nice to see some different guys step up," Verlin said. "That was good to see, because those other guys have been practicing hard and doing what they're supposed to."
Sophomore guard Connor Hill led Idaho with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. He remarkably converted a four-point play for a second game in a row at the 9:30 mark of the second half during the team's big run. Hill was the only Vandal in double figures on the night, however.
Verlin also praised the efforts of junior forward Joe Kammerer, who had to pull double duty on the scout team because of an injury at practice on Friday, and then came in and spelled Barone for 12 minutes with four points on 2-of-3 shooting and three rebounds.
Junior guard Robert Harris scored a career-high nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, while Madison also added nine points and a team high five rebounds, and junior forward Marcus Bell scored a career-high eight points.
Barone was in foul trouble all evening. He sat a large portion of the first half with two fouls, then picked up a pair of quick ones early just five minutes into the second half. He fouled out at the 4:30 mark of the second half with five points and three rebounds – his lowest scoring output since March 10, 2011, when he scored three against San Jose State in the WAC Tournament quarterfinal.
Verlin said free throws were a big key on Saturday. The Vandals haven't shot the ball from well from the free throw line this season, and they suffered for it tonight. Idaho went just 12-of-21 (.571) from the line, while UTEP made 14 of its 18 attempts for a .778 clip.
"I told the team it was a one-possession game tonight," Verlin said. "You look at a couple simple mistakes we made, a couple free throws we didn't make – a couple of those things and this is a different finish."
Idaho shot 44.7 percent overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point rage and out-rebounded the Miners by a 31-25 margin. UTEP went 23-of-44 (.523) from the field and 4-of-12 (.333) from the 3-point line in the game. The Miners held a 14-9 edge in points off turnovers, but Idaho had a 10-6 advantage in second-chance points and a 2-0 lead in transition.
Saturday's game was eerily similar to Thursday's 81-79 overtime win at Eastern Washington in which the Vandals erased a 17-point second-half lead for the comeback win. Neither team led by more than five points in the first half and the Miners took a 32-29 lead into the break.
UTEP opened the second half on a 20-5 scoring run to take a 52-34 lead with 12:16 to play. Idaho immediately answered with its 17-2 scoring run to pull back within two points and set the stage for the tight finish.
"I'm not happy with the result, but I am happy with how we competed," Verlin said. "I thought these guys really battled right from the get-go tonight. We played extremely hard, but we just didn't make enough plays to get it done."
After playing two games in three days, Idaho now has an extended break before its next action. Verlin said the team will take two days off to study and prepare for finals week, and then the team returns to Cowan Spectrum for a home date with Walla Walla University on Saturday, Dec. 15, at 7:05 p.m. (PT).
Next Saturday's game is Idaho's first Readers as Leaders game, at which elementary school students wearing their Readers as Leaders shirts receive free admission. The team will also visit local schools during the week to promote the reading program.