Last Of The Independents: Cal State-Bakersfield At New Mexico State

Written By: Bill Harty

Wednesday in Las Cruces saw a visit to New Mexico State by the Roadrunners of California State University at Bakersfield. The Roadrunners played their first Division I season five years ago and have yet to find a conference home, although the Big West has been hearing from them regularly. There are only three independent Division I teams this year. Two of those have found conferences for next season: Longwood received the long sought invitation from the Big South, and Seattle will be joining New Mexico State in the WAC. Assuming the survival of the Great West—that is questionable given the recent attrition there—CSUB will be the only independent next season.

The NCAA rules for moving up to Division I now require a conference invitation to be able to make the move. The two schools that have announced that they are beginning that process next year already have joined established conferences: Nebraska-Omaha will join the Summit League and Northern Kentucky the Atlantic Sun. CSUB may literally be the last of the independents in Division I basketball.

Before this season, the Aggies and Roadrunners had played only once, about twenty-five years ago, in an Aggie win in Las Cruces. The schools are playing a home-and-home this season, and the first game in Bakersfield on January 2 was a close one, coming immediately after starting Aggie guard Christian Kabongo’s decision to transfer (eventually to Southern Mississippi). The teams were tied at the half, and it took two free throws from Aggie Tyrone Watson with 0.9 seconds left for New Mexico State to get a 73-72 victory.

An interesting connection between the schools is Aggie assistant coach Keith Brown. Brown was an assistant at CSUB for eight years, before spending the past six years as their head coach. CSUB was 21-8 in 2005-06, their final Division II season, advancing to the NCAA regional semifinal. Of course, Coach Brown is very familiar with the Roadrunners’ upperclassmen, and led the coaching staff's scouting of CSUB.

NMSU jumped out quickly to a 10-5 lead, blocking three Roadrunner shots in the first few minutes. CSUB shifted to a zone at that point, and stayed there the rest of the game. The Aggies’ size advantage was offset somewhat by the Roadrunner quickness, allowing them to stay nearly even in rebounding. Forward Mo Hughley’s nine first-half points, guard Zachary Lamb’s eight, and guard Stephon Carter’s six kept the Roadrunners fairly close. The Aggies led 36-29 at the half.

At halftime, the athletic department held its annual Academic Honors Night, introducing each of the 247 student-athletes who achieved a 3.0 or better grade point average in the fall. Despite some absences (maybe thirty of the honored football players were not present), the floor was pretty crowded.

The Aggies were, even against the zone, able to take the ball inside all night. After Wendell McKines missed his first two free throws, the Aggies shook off the free throw shooting issues of the past few games ending with only four misses in total. The Roadrunners had a short scoring run in the middle of the half, but the Aggies ran off with the victory, 78-57. CSUB forward Donald Johnson had twelve second half points, and Carter added another seven, but Hughley was scoreless after halftime and Lamb was held to four.

The Aggies were again led by McKines’ fourteenth double-double of the season, twenty points and fourteen rebounds. The twelfth of those rebounds was the 1,000th of his career. He is only the second Aggie to get that many; only Sam Lacey of the 1970 Final Four team has more. The PA announcer announced the milestone ten rebounds too early; after the game, McKines said he felt pressure to get to 1,000 since it had already been announced. He is now one of two active players, along with T. J. Robinson of Long Beach State, to have 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Guard Daniel Mullings also had a good scoring game for the Aggies, with two dunks among his sixteen points. Three other Aggies had between eight and ten points, showing the scoring balance that has been typical of New Mexico State victories this year. Both teams play their next games at home on Saturday: the Roadrunners host Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, while the Aggies return to WAC play against Louisiana Tech.