In the time since Sam Wassonand I both covered the NMSU-Idaho game nearly two weeks ago, the conference race has begun to take shape. Tonight's opponents in Las Cruces are the clear favorites: Nevada came in unbeaten with a 5-0 record, including key road wins at both Utah State and Idaho; last week the Wolf Pack won two games at home, defeating future Summit League member Nebraska-Omaha and conference foe Fresno State. New Mexico State is 4-1 with two road wins of its own, but those came against Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, two of the bottom three teams in the standings. The Aggies' past week took them to San Jose for an easy victory, and to Hawai'i, where they trailed by 19 points in the second half, only to have their monster comeback (30 points in the final eight minutes) come up short by four.
Trailing these two in the standings are Hawai'i and Idaho at 3-2 each, Utah State and Louisiana Tech at 2-3, Fresno State at 1-4, and San Jose State at 0-5. One key game last weekend had Idaho hold the home court against Utah State in both teams' only conference game, giving the USU Aggies their third conference defeat; the Aggies also lost at future conference foe Seattle. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs' surprise weekend sweep including a win at Hawai'i, aided by the Thursday illnesses of two Hawai'i starters. Fresno State's Bulldogs (there seems to be a shortage of team nicknames in the WAC, we seem to keep reusing them) also won a non-Division I game against Cal State-San Marcos last week. On Monday of this week, San Jose's Spartans got a much-needed victory over Cal State-Bakersfield. After this weekend's full slate of games, the conference season will be half complete, as each team will have played seven of the fourteen WAC contests.
New Mexico State and Nevada have never met in a non-conference game. The Aggies won thirteen of eighteen Big West games between the schools between 1993 and 2000, splitting the two conference tournament contests. The Wolf Pack has won ten of the sixteen games since the Aggies joined the WAC for the 2006 season, but the Aggies have won all four WAC tournament games, including two in Reno and last year in Las Vegas, and three of the last four games. In Las Cruces however, the Wolf Pack has won two of the prior three years.
This is Nevada's last year below the red line, and this was the second of three consecutive games against the three schools leaving the WAC after this season: Hawai'I last Saturday in Honolulu, and the home stand against Nevada and Fresno State. The Aggies will play each one more time before the end of the regular season.
If New Mexico State wanted to catch Nevada for the regular-season WAC title, tonight's game on the Aggies' home court would be very important. Given Nevada's road wins at Utah State and Idaho, a third victory over another contender would give the Wolf Pack a two-game lead going into February, and have all the contending teams but Hawai'i coming to Reno in the second half of the season.
This was the first home game since the start of the spring semester, and the students were present and noisy.
My thoughts about the first few minutes were "Uh-oh, the good Aggie team did not show up tonight." New Mexico State appeared flat emotionally, and Nevada was moving the ball well, getting layups and open outside shots. Sophomore point guard Deonte Burton made two quick superhoops, sparking a 14-5 opening run by the Wolf Pack. Through the middle of the half, the Aggies and Wolf Pack traded baskets, each scoring 18 points between the first media timeout and the last one. The final four minutes saw two smaller Nevada scoring bursts, and the halftime score was 44-30. The differences in the first half were primarily caused by New Mexico State's inability to make shots from any distance and Nevada's inability to miss any. Halftime shooting percentages were 30 percent and 72 percent. The Wolf Pack had four Deonte Burton superhoops, and two from Malik Story. The aggressive Nevada zone defense, aided by their depth (playing nine players in the first half), effectively kept the Aggies out of the paint on offense all night, negating their height and rebounding advantage. Aggie center Hamidu Rahman had a tip-in with 17 seconds to play in the half; that was the only Aggie field goal in the last nine minutes.
The second half was much like NMSU's Saturday game at Hawai'i. New Mexico State and Nevada mostly traded baskets for the first 12 minutes of the second half, leaving Nevada ahead by 16 with about eight minutes to play. At that point, Nevada stopped being aggressive offensively and seemed more worried about keeping the clock moving than scoring, and the Aggies began causing turnovers with a trapping full-court press. At five minutes, the Nevada lead was down to 12. At three and a half, Aggie Hernst Laroche made his third of four second-half superhoops, and the lead was nine. After the press caused a turnover, Laroche got the ball to center Tshilidzi Nephawe for an emphatic dunk; the Wolf Pack led now by seven. After an empty possession for each team, another Nevada turnover and foul led to two Nephawe free throws; with two minutes to play the Nevada lead was five.
At that point, the Wolf Pack had seen enough. An emphatic dunk by forward Oleg Czyz, and two Dario Hunt free throws after Aggie leader Wendell McKines's fifth foul put Nevada back in control. The Wolf Pack coasted to a 68-60 victory, and a two-game lead in the WAC standings. As in last Saturday's game, the Aggies made a furious comeback, but had allowed the opponent to get too far ahead for a successful recovery.
Nevada showed a great deal of balance with Hunt, Burton, Czyz and Story all scoring in double digits; in fact, only six Nevada points came from their bench. New Mexico State seniors McKines (15) and Laroche (21) were the only Aggies with more than six points. Despite getting 13 more rebounds and making 12 more free throws, the Aggies' shooting deficiency was too much to overcome.
Nevada (6-0) now leads NMSU (4-2) and Idaho (also 4-2 after tonight's home win over San Jose State) by two games. Tonight's other WAC games saw Utah State beat Hawai'i in Logan and Louisiana Tech get a one-point home victory over Fresno State. The three 3-3 teams trailing Nevada by three games (say that three times quickly if you can) are Utah State, Hawai'i, and Louisiana Tech. It remains to be seen if tonight's game will be a microcosm of the WAC season: Nevada running out to a big lead that will be very difficult to overcome. Nevada continues on the road to a game at Louisiana Tech on Saturday; the NMSU Aggies will be visited by Fresno State for the Lou Henson Classic on Saturday.
NEVADA 68, at NEW MEXICO STATE 60 01/26/2012
NEVADA 17-3 (6-0) -- M. Story 5-10 1-2 14; D. Hunt 5-7 5-8 15; D. Burton 6-12 1-3 17; O. Czyz 7-10 0-1 14; P. Nyeko 0-2 0-0 0; J. Evans Jr. 1-3 0-0 2; D. Elliott 2-2 0-0 4; K. Panzer 0-0 0-0 0; J. Finn 0-0 2-2 2; J. Burris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 9-16 68. NEW MEXICO STATE 14-7 (4-2) -- H. Laroche 7-15 3-5 21; W. McKines 2-12 11-13 15; T. Watson 1-3 3-4 5; D. Mullings 2-4 2-6 6; B. Sy 2-9 0-0 5; T. Nephawe 1-1 2-3 4; H. Rahman 2-5 0-0 4; R. Barry 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 17-52 21-31 60.
Three-point goals: NEV 7-17 (M. Story 3-7; P. Nyeko 0-1; J. Evans 0-1; D. Burton 4-8), NMSU 5-22 (W. McKines 0-3; H. Laroche 4-7; T. Watson 0-2; B. Sy 1-6; R. Barry 0-3; D. Mullings 0-1); Rebounds: NEV 22 (D. Hunt 8), NMSU 37 (W. McKines 8); Assists: NEV 11 (M. Story 3), NMSU 8 (H. Laroche 3); Total Fouls -- NEV 23, NMSU 19; Fouled Out: NEV-D. Elliott; NMSU-W. McKines.