Written By: Bill Harty
Before the BracketBusters pairings came out on January 30, New Mexico State knew it was possible that it would be one of the 26 teams selected to play on national television, but not confident that it would. However, only twenty members of the field were ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, and NMSU was one of them (ranked 84). The Aggies were selected for a TV game against former Missouri Valley opponent Drake, the first time the Aggies had drawn a Valley team. Four of the six prior BracketBusters games were against former Big West rivals, twice playing Pacific. Both Drake (7-1 before this game) and New Mexico State (5-1) have winning histories in BracketBusters games.
The history of competition between the schools is mostly from the period they were Valley members together. There were six nonconference meetings, split evenly: the Aggies 1939-40 team, on its way to its fourth consecutive Border Conference championship, beat defending Valley co-champion Drake on two consecutive December nights in Las Cruces; the Bulldogs won a Des Moines game in 1964; the Aggies’ Final Four team defeated the Bulldogs in the 1970 Midwest regional final in Lawrence, Kansas; and Drake won both games of a 1971 and 1972 home-and-home series. During the Aggies’ Valley membership (1975-83), New Mexico State was 13-6 against Drake, including a 1978 home victory in the conference tournament (yes, before Arch Madness, the Valley tournament was played in campus arenas). The teams had not met again since a 1983 Drake victory in Des Moines.
A question of interest to Aggie fans about Drake, almost since the pairings announcement, was whether leading scorer Ben Simons would recover enough from a bout of mononucleosis to play in the BracketBusters game. Unfortunately, he was not cleared by his doctors to participate, and junior forward Aaron Hawley replaced him in the starting lineup.
The game began on a good note for the Aggies, with a #superhoop by senior guard Hernst Laroche and a dunk by freshman guard Daniel Mullings before the Bulldogs scored; consistent scoring by NMSU guards has been rare this season. The Aggies continued to build their lead throughout the half by somewhat better than typical shooting, 46% from the field and making five of seven #superhoops; in the prior 27 games, the Aggies have averaged only four three-pointers per game. Drake made three three-pointers of their own in the first half; the Bulldogs were led by Rayvonte Rice’s nine points, mostly on driving layups. The Aggies’ size and strength advantage was reflected in their getting seven more first half rebounds. NMSU starting center Hamidu Rahman spent some time on the bench, getting three first half fouls. Aggie forward Wendell McKines had an outstanding half with fourteen points.
The second half was similar to the first, although the scoring was much closer. Drake tried several defenses, including a full court trap, but none was particularly effective against the larger Aggies. With seven minutes to play, the Aggies led by twenty-one. Drake had a short (5-0) run after that, but the outcome was never in doubt. Rayvonte Rice played well for Drake, but picked up three second half fouls and was disqualified with three minutes to play. Hawley had a fine second half for the Bulldogs, scoring nine of his fourteen total points on three #superhoops. Laroche, Mullings, McKines and Rahman all scored double figures for the Aggies, and McKines’ double-double was his fifteenth of the season. In the second half, NMSU scored two more points than Drake did, making the final score NMSU 71, Drake 55. This was, if not the best, one of the best team performances by the Aggies this season against a quality opponent.
Drake has two more regular season games, hosting Southern Illinois to close the home schedule, then visiting Valley leader Wichita State. New Mexico State’s final home stand concludes with Hawai’i on Thursday and San Jose State on Saturday, before finishing on the road against Nevada and Fresno State.
New Mexico State has been selected for televised BracketBusters games twice previously: in 2007 hosting Ohio, and in 2010 visiting Pacific; in both of those years, the Aggies went on to win the WAC tournament. The Aggies have been on the four-letter network twice this season, two excellent wins including last Saturday’s victory at Utah State; there could be two more NMSU appearances on ESPN2 this year, certainly at Nevada in twelve days, and possibly in the WAC tournament final in three weeks. Here’s hoping both trends continue.