Written By: Bill Harty
Saturday marked the beginning of the second half of the WAC season for both New Mexico State and visiting Louisiana Tech. On January 7 at the Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston, the Aggies defeated the Bulldogs 83-73, in a game that the Aggies led by 6 at the half and by double digits much of the second half. But after losing at home to both Idaho and Utah State the following week, the Bulldogs have been much improved, winning both at Hawai’i and San Jose State, and at home over Fresno State, before losing in the final seconds to conference leader Nevada. No one in Las Cruces was taking this game for granted.
The Aggies and Bulldogs have a relatively brief history: one non-conference Aggie victory in Las Cruces in 1977; one Aggie victory in Ruston in 2001, lone year their memberships in the Sun Belt overlapped (being in different divisions, they only played once); and thirteen WAC games before this season, the Aggies winning ten of them and all the Las Cruces games, including one in the 2007 WAC tournament.
Everyone I spoke with before the game expected a close contest, and no one was disappointed. New Mexico State played a matchup zone early, and much of the night. Louisiana Tech also played zone defense much of the first half, before going to a man-to-man for much of the second. The NMSU offense was very typical of their play to date, passing around the perimeter seeking a pass inside for a shot from one of the bigs. Louisiana Tech’s offense was similar in the passes, but not in the shots; most of the Bulldog shots were from long range. The game was exceptionally even, tied both at the under sixteen and under twelve minute media timeouts. Under eight, the Bulldogs led 28-27; under four, they were again tied at 34. Before the half, the Aggies had a 10-6 run leading to a four point halftime advantage.
The young guards of Louisiana Tech were impressive all evening. Raheem Appleby, a freshman, had fifteen points in the first half, including six of nine from the free throw line. Sophomores Kenyon Mc Neail and Cordarius Johnson added ten and eight, respectively. First half leaders for the Aggies were seniors Hamidu Rahman, with twelve points on three dunks and two for six free throw shooting, and Wendell McKines, with nine points, as well as junior Bandja Sy, with seven.
At the half of Military Appreciation Night, a three point shooting contest between representatives of the campus Army and Air Force ROTC units was dominated by the Army. The rules stated that each time a shot was made, the opponent’s shooter and rebounders had to do ten pushups each before resuming play. The Army sharpshooter made three straight shots at the start moving left along the arc from the corner, and the Air Force never really had the chance to catch up on anything but pushups.
The second half began with a burst by the Bulldogs tying the game at 51 with about fifteen minutes to play, despite a colossal #omgdunx by McKines. Louisiana Tech continued by taking, then holding a lead for several minutes; the Bulldogs led by four at the under eight media timeout. Appleby, Johnson and McNeail continued to impress; in fact only nine Louisiana Tech points in the game were scored by anyone else. Appleby ended the game with thirty points and four #superhoops; however, he shot no free throws in the second half. Johnson ended with sixteen and McNeail with seventeen.
Preparing to write this, I read the previous @800GP writeup of a Louisiana Tech game, Dwight Strayer’s story about the Bulldogs’ game at Arkansas in December. Eerily, his penultimate paragraph describes the end of this game nearly perfectly. With the words “Razorbacks” and “Hogs” changed to “Aggies”:
… However, after this timeout, the Bulldogs became ice cold and the Aggies red hot. After the media timeout, Louisiana Tech was only able to muster one two field goals for the rest of the game. The Aggies quickly poured on the points and the game was in hand as it entered the last minute. Sensing the inevitable, Louisiana Tech Coach Mike White ordered his players to not foul and the clock ticked to zero on a victory for the Aggies.
Aggie freshman guard Daniel Mullings led the team’s final run, scoring on four consecutive layups driving through the Louisiana Tech defense. After that, Tech tried fouling to get back into the game for a couple of minutes, but without any success. The Aggies outscored the Bulldogs 20-5 in the final nine minutes of the game, winning 83-72, nearly identical to the score of their first meeting. Rahman had twenty points for New Mexico State. McKines and Mullings each finished with fifteen; McKines also had ten rebounds for his fourteenth double-double of the season.
Next week, these WAC traveling partners will each visit both Idaho and Utah State for vital games among the WAC contenders. Saturday’s upset wins by Idaho at Nevada and by Fresno over Utah State, together with Hawai’i’s overtime win at San Jose State, have tightened up the conference race considerably.