Written By: Bill Harty
Welcome back to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for the second quarterfinal of the WAC Tournament. At the tip, it was still 63 degrees in Las Vegas for the matchup between the second seeded New Mexico State Aggies and the seventh seeded Fresno State Bulldogs. From the Orleans sports book, the Aggies were favored by 7½ and the over/under on the total score was 135½.
New Mexico State won both regular season contests. On January 28, the Aggies prevailed 60-56 in Las Cruces. Five days ago in the season finale for both teams, the Aggies emerged an 83-78 winner after the overtime period. The Bulldogs lost their last five WAC contests, but the largest margin of defeat was eight after two overtimes with rival San Jose State, and Fresno State played a total of six overtime periods in those games, including a three-overtime, three point loss to regular season champion Nevada. New Mexico State had won six of their prior seven games, losing only to Nevada by four in Reno in a game that was decided in the last ten seconds.
Coach Marvin Menzies had won 99 prior games as the Aggies’ head coach; winning today would make him only the fifth NMSU mentor with 100 victories. On the day after former Aggie and career steals record holder William Benjamin’s Las Cruces High team was eliminated from the New Mexico state high school championships, senior guard Hernst Laroche’s first steal would tie Benjamin’s record at 209, and the second would break it.
Like the first game today, this one had the potential to be a struggle over tempo: the Aggies play at the 18th fastest rate in the nation, while the Bulldogs are 307th in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com. In addition, for the first of three times today in the WAC, the old saw about not beating a team three times in the same season would be tested.
The game started unusually, as Fresno State’s Grant Hefeng was assessed a technical foul for dunking during the warm up period; he did not play in the game. After Laroche made one of the two free throws, Fresno won the opening tip; the start seemed a little ragged as both teams worked through the offensive jitters. Both defenses, NMSU’s man-to-man and Fresno’s 2-3 zone, were very intense and dominated the first half. The Aggies’ six point halftime lead was the largest by either team, after they were tied at both the first and last media timeouts.
Aggie forward Tyrone Watson, who normally leads by rebounding, defending, and all around hustling, was in the unusual position as scoring leader for the first half with seven; forward Kevin Foster, who started for the Bulldogs when he does not normally, led their scoring with six. The Aggies, whose offense normally revolves around getting the ball inside, were held outside by the Bulldog zone; NMSU missed all seven three point attempts in the half, and only guard Daniel Mullings two jumpers late in the half gave any indication that NMSU might shoot from outside.
It is always great to have the outstanding school bands perform at the tournament, and here is Fresno’s group.
For the second half, the Aggies, starting with McKines’ first score of the half for either team, went to their normal game plan of taking the ball inside to score from the floor, or get fouled trying. As is typical of Aggie games this season, NMSU made more free throws than the opponent attempted; their free throw rate (FTA/FGA) has been consistently the highest in the country by several percentage points all season. Fresno managed to get the lead down to five with about five minutes to play, but it slowly grew from there toward the final score, NMSU 65, FSU 49. Fresno attempted to stem the momentum by changing defenses despite valiant efforts by guard Kevin Olekaibe, who was the focus of the NMSU defense all night, and Foster. There were a couple of hard fouls by Fresno against driving Aggie shooting guard Daniel Mullings after his spectacular second half dunk, including a flagrant-one, but he was not injured enough to keep him from completing the game.
Each team had three double figure scorers. For the Aggies, McKines scored fifteen (to go with 13 rebounds for his nineteenth double-double of the season), Watson thirteen, and Mullings eleven; Bulldog Foster got fourteen, followed by teammates Olekaibe with thirteen, and guard Steven Shepp with ten. For the second time in as many games of the WAC tournament, the team normally playing at the faster tempo prevailed.
Fresno ends their WAC tenure with a loss, but Olekaibe and Foster will return to aid continue first-year head coach Rodney Terry’s building of the Bulldog basketball program in the Mountain West. Laroche’s one steal tied Benjamin for the career steals record, and Menzies joined Lou Henson, Neil McCarthy, Jerry Hines, and Presley Askew with at least 100 NMSU victories. The Aggies defeated the Bulldogs for the third time this season, and will face the surprising Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors in Friday’s first WAC semifinal.