Written By: Bill Harty
Saturday’s WAC Men’s Basketball Championship final featured the second seed New Mexico State Aggies and the fifth seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The prior two nights have seen the Aggies defeat Fresno State (seeded seventh) and Hawai'i (seeded sixth and upset winner over Idaho on Thursday). The Bulldogs road to the final went through Utah State (fourth) and Nevada (first).
This game would be another test of the maxim about how difficult it is to defeat a team for the third time as New Mexico State won both regular season meetings, January 7 in Ruston by a score of 83-73, and February 4 in Las Cruces, 83-72. On the tournament’s first day, the top two seeds won their third consecutive matchups against the bottom two, but Louisiana Tech’s victory over Utah State followed the Aggies’ regular season sweep of the Bulldogs. Nevada had also swept Louisiana Tech during the season, and again Tech prevailed.
The tournament was held at the Orleans Arena, attached to the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Orleans sports book odds (the path from the rooms to the arena goes through the book) favored New Mexico State by eight and the over/under bet on the total score was at 148½. The arena itself and its proximity to the hotel are nice, but attendance was poor again for the second year of the WAC’s neutral site experiment. During the tournament, I heard that using a neutral site might be continued for next season’s event because the conference membership is changing so radically that data from prior seasons might not mean much. (Next year, the WAC is losing Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawai'i to other conferences, and adding Seattle, Denver, Texas-Arlington, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.) Attendance at campus sites has been much greater, with the tradeoff that one of the schools is playing home games for their crowd.
The weather, after finally getting here, has been great. Getting to Las Vegas was a bit of an adventure, as heavy winds closed the airport there for much of Tuesday. Our scheduled 3:40 departure from El Paso came closer to 7:40, but those who left at noon were still in Phoenix, and those who left at 1:30 were still in San Diego at that time. The New Mexico State team and entourage were originally on the 6:50 flight, which left about 8:00, but moved up to fill all the empty seats on our flight. At Saturday’s 9:00 p.m. tip off, it was a beautifully still and clear sixty degrees.
In the arena, New Mexico State had a distinct advantage in the number of supporters present, although the contrast was not as stark at it had been during the earlier women’s tournament final. For that game, Louisiana Tech did not have a band or cheerleaders, and the advantage was significant to Fresno State. For the men’s final, Fresno State’s support teams covered their logos with conference tournament t-shirts, and played and cheered for the conference’s other Bulldogs.
As with the prior two nights, New Mexico State started the game strongly, scoring the first eight points and forcing Tech coach Michael White into a quick timeout to regroup. The Aggies followed the formula that served them well in their twenty-five wins during the season: defend vigorously, give the opponent only one try per possession, get the ball upcourt quickly after turnovers or rebounds, and take the ball to the glass, either by passing to the bigs inside, or by creating openings for guards to drive to the hoop. The Aggies’ aggressive man-to-man defense kept Tech’s guards off balance, and the first half was a marked contrast to Tech’s victory over Nevada. In the first half of the Nevada game, Tech made an astounding eight of ten superhoop attempts; in this game, they made none of their nine three-point tries. Every Tech shot was contested. Nearly every NMSU possession went into the paint; this was with good reason, as the Aggies missed all five of their three point attempts as well. The Aggie lead increased before each of the media timeouts of the half, and grew to eighteen at the half: New Mexico State 38, Louisiana Tech 20.
As might be expected, Aggie senior forward Wendell McKines had twelve points and twelve rebounds in the first half to lead everyone in both categories. Junior forward Tyrone Watson added ten points to his supreme defensive effort holding Tech senior guard Trevor Gaskins scoreless. Tech’s conference freshman of the year Raheem Appleby led the Bulldogs with eight points. No other player for either team scored more than four points.
The Bulldogs played a zone most of the night, and just before the half began pressuring the Aggies full court to slow the onslaught. The second half started with another 19-6 Aggie run building to a 31 point lead, 57-26. For a brief while, the Aggies’ intensity dropped just a bit, certainly in some measure due to the defensive efforts of Tech, some due to the fatigue caused by playing on the third consecutive day. Tech gave a great effort to outscore the Aggies during the next nine minutes, twenty-one to fifteen. Guard Trevor Gaskins scored twenty-two of the Bulldogs’ thirty seven second half points.
With three-and-a-half minutes to play, McKines stepped back of the arc and let fly with a superhoop making the Aggie lead 70-46; a minute later, after Appleby countered, he made a second one and it was clear that there would be no comeback tonight. After a double contact technical foul was called on Gaskins and Aggie senior center Hamidu Rahman with two minutes to play, both benches were cleared and the Aggies coasted to a victory by the largest tournament final victory margin in the fifty-year history of the Western Athletic Conference, 82-57.
McKines led all scorers with twenty-seven, and added fourteen rebounds. Watson and freshman shooting guard Daniel Mullings tallied twelve points each. To Gaskins twenty-four, Appleby added fifteen. The Aggies shot 56% for the game, to Tech’s 33%. Rebounds were 46-27, and the Aggies had seventeen assists on their thirty-three baskets. McKines, Watson, and Aggie senior point guard Hernst Laroche were named to the all-tournament team, along with Appleby and Gaskins.
The Aggies will play Indiana on Thursday evening in Portland in the first second round of the NCAA Championship.