Written By: Bill Harty
It was another great day for hoops in Las Vegas, sunny and 67 degrees for the six p.m. tip of the first WAC semifinal contest between second seed New Mexico State and sixth seed Hawai'i. The Orleans sports book made the Aggies an eleven point favorite and expected a total score of 150.
The teams split their regular season contests. Hawai'i won the January 21 game in Honolulu’s Stan Sheriff Center 91-87 in a game Hawai'i led by nineteen point midway through the second half. The Aggies scored 30 points in the final eight minutes of the game, but had led the lead get too large to overcome. In Las Cruces’ Pan American Center on February 23, the Aggies annihilated the Warriors 115 73 in a wild game marred by five technical fouls. The Aggies shot the ball unusually well, 60%, in that contest.
Unlike the quarterfinals, this game matched the two WAC teams that play with the highest tempo, and from that standpoint, it did not disappoint. New Mexico State came out with an intense matchup zone defense and scored the game’s first seventeen points. By the first media timeout, all five Aggie starters and reserve forward Bandja Sy had scored, Hawai'i coach Gib Arnold had used two of his timeouts, and the Aggie lead was 21-2 with a free throw coming; center Tchilidzi Nephawe scored the toss.
It appeared at that point that the Aggies lost their overwhelming defensive intensity and Hawai'i slowly crawled back into the contest by making a number of easy layups and short jumpers, outscoring NMSU 34-26 in the remainder of the half. The normal Aggie offensive game plan of driving to the basket and either scoring from the floor, or going to the free throw line was not followed well; each team attempted only seven free throws in the half. But the Aggie offense was functioning efficiently; fifteen of the nineteen Aggie field goals were assisted. When Aggie freshman guard Daniel Mullings final three point attempt ringed out at the buzzer, the NMSU halftime lead was nine, 47-38. Six Aggies had each scored at least five points; leaders were forward Wendell McKines with twelve points and Mullings with seven rebounds. Hawai'i guard Shaquille Stokes had ten points, aided by his two superhoops; Center Vander Joaquim had ten points and seven rebounds for the Warriors. Both teams were shooting well: Hawai'i 54% and NMSU 50%.
In the second period, Hawai'i made an early run, getting the lead down to four in the first couple of minutes. The Aggies recovered, but never regained the intensity they displayed in the first five minutes of the game. In the middle of the half, Hawai'i got the lead down to one point by scoring a couple of old-fashioned three-point plays (by Joaquim and guard Garrett Jefferson). From that point, the Aggies gradually increased their lead over the remainder of the game, winning going away, 92-81.
Six Aggies scored in double figures led by McKines’ twenty-two and guard Hernst Laroche’s eighteen; Laroche also had three steals to bring his career record total to 212. Mullings had a double-double with ten rebounds to go with his twelve points. Stokes led Hawai'i with twenty-one points, and Joaquim had seventeen; forwards Hauns Brereton and Trevor Wiseman added ten each. Hawai'i went down fighting, shooting 57% from the floor for the game, having twenty assisted baskets, and missing only one free throw.
The Warriors ended the season with a 16-16 record, and will join the Big West next year with much of this team intact; only senior guards Zane Johnson, who missed the tournament with an illness, and ‘Miah Ostroski have completed their eligibility. The Aggies advanced to Saturday’s final against the victor of the second semi-final game between Nevada and Louisiana Tech.