Far too many people take sports (and in turn college basketball) far too seriously. I appreciate passionate fans, I really do, in fact I consider myself one of them. But it seems like we've forgotten what sports are supposed to be and that is an escape. Sports are supposed to serve as an escape from reality for a few hours, a way to relax, unwind from the everyday stresses of life.
On this night, New Mexico State's game against Utah State served as a little bit of an escape from the reality of how fleeting life really can be. Just a few hours earlier in the day I was in the hospital at the bedside of my 65-year old father as he underwent an outpatient procedure to try to fix his atrial fibrillation through a procedure called cardioversion. It's a fairly common procedure but as is the case with any medical procedures that are heart-related, particularly those that involve delivering a 360-joule shock, there are always possible risks involved. Those possibilities are what prompted me to take a flight from my now home in Anchorage, Alaska down to El Paso, TX where my dad would undergo the procedure. Fortunately, all went well with the procedure and he is on the road to a healthier life.
This is not the first time that sports, college basketball in particular, has served as an escape from reality. Just three short years ago my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the very same killer that took the life of NCAA President Myles Brand (and countless others). Going to Aggie games was a way to keep my mind off of the battle that was being waged back in reality. My family and I were fortunate and my mom beat the cancer and is still with my family today.
So tonight as I took the 45 minute drive up I-10 heading toward the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, I was reminded of just how fortunate I had been, not only to have this outlet to escape from reality for just a few hours but also how fortunate I was that the reality that I would return to a few hours later would still hold for me a mother and father.
I arrived at the Pan Am about 20 minutes before tip-off. It had been a couple years since I had been to a game in the building (trips from Alaska to New Mexico aren't exactly cheap, nor are they particularly short) and so it was my first time to see my alma mater, New Mexico State, play at home in two seasons. This was not, however, the first time I had seen them play in person this season. The team was kind enough to make the lengthy trek up to Anchorage to participate in the Great Alaska Shootout, finishing third behind a couple of good teams in Murray State (the only undefeated team left from our side of the Red Line) and Southern Miss.
After exchanging pleasantries with many of my old friends it was time for the game to tip off.
One major difference between the team that took the floor tonight and the team that took the floor in Alaska was the absence of three players: Christian Kabongo, who decided to transfer during the semester break, Renaldo Dixon, who is still mulling over his future on the team, and Terrell de Rouen, a freshman point guard who saw his first action in Anchorage during the Shootout, but is now sitting out after suffering an ACL and MCL tear. The departure of Kabongo has re-energized the team (some call it addition by subtraction) and the change has been evidenced in the two previous games since his announcement.
The first half was every bit the back and forth battle that I expected it to be, considering these two teams are perennial contenders in the WAC. Utah State held an early five point advantage but the first half would see six lead changes and 11 ties, with the 11th tie sending the game into halftime knotted at 34.
Neither team could really get into an offensive rhythm in the first half and Utah State countered New Mexico State's massive advantage in the paint (28 to 8) by going a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line (the homestanding Aggies were just 3-for-9 from the charity stripe).
The second half started out much like the first half with neither team venturing too far ahead of the other. Halftime adjustments were made and the home-standing Aggies switched to a zone defense, which stifled the Utah State attack. Utah State did not look like the Utah State teams of old, they struggled shooting the ball, hitting just three three-pointers all night, not that I minded too much. I've seen more long-distance barrages by Utah State against NMSU in the past than I care to remember.
The zone defense worked and NMSU went on a 24-4 run to go up 70-52 and turned the game into a laugher for the final four minutes.
The run was capped by a pair of one-handed #omgdunx by Daniel Mullings and Bandja Sy, the latter of which landed Sy his second appearance on Sportscenter's Top Ten plays of the day.
New Mexico State finished the game with a ridiculous 52-14 points-in-the-paint advantage, no doubt something that Utah State's fantastic head coach Stew Morrill will aim to rectify in the rematch in Logan at the end of the season. Adding to Utah State's misery was the free throw line as the fortunes were also reversed with USU hit just 7-of-17 free throw attempts while NMSU hit 14-of-20 (that percentage was skewed a bit by some late misses, NMSU was clutch from the line when they had to be).
In the end the 80-60 win was a nice way to cap off a very long day but the pleasure of seeing my alma mater win pales in comparison to the feeling of driving back to my parents' home knowing that they would both there waiting for me.
at NEW MEXICO STATE 80, UTAH STATE 60 01/12/2012
UTAH STATE 9-8 (1-2) -- J. Baker 6-16 1-1 14; P. Medlin 3-10 1-2 9; B. Pane 7-12 1-2 16; K. Reed 6-8 6-9 18; M. Grim 2-3 4-6 8; D. Berger 0-5 0-0 0; M. Bruneel 0-2 1-2 1; J. Stone 1-1 0-2 2; E. Farris 0-3 4-4 4; B. Clifford 0-1 0-0 0; A. Thoseby 1-5 0-0 2; I. Premasunac 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 17-27 60. NEW MEXICO STATE 12-5 (2-0) -- H. Laroche 4-8 1-4 10; D. Mullings 8-10 1-3 17; W. McKines 4-10 3-5 13; T. Watson 3-3 3-5 9; B. Sy 3-11 2-3 8; T. Nephawe 4-8 4-4 12; H. Rahman 4-11 3-5 11. Totals 30-61 17-29 80.
Three-point goals: USU 3-16 (B. Pane 1-4; P. Medlin 2-5; E. Farris 0-1; D. Berger 0-2; M. Bruneel 0-1; A. Thoseby 0-3), NMSU 3-12 (W. McKines 2-4; H. Laroche 1-3; B. Sy 0-4; D. Mullings 0-1); Rebounds: USU 28 (K. Reed 6), NMSU 39 (W. McKines 11); Assists: USU 8 (B. Pane 3), NMSU 14 (H. Laroche 6); Total Fouls -- USU 25, NMSU 19; Fouled Out: USU-M. Grim; NMSU-T. Nephawe.