Saturday brought us to a series of basketball events to the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, N.M. First, the NMSU women continued to learn new coach Mark Trakh's system against Louisiana Tech's Lady Techsters, a traditional power in women's hoops. The first half was close, but two 15-0 Tech second-half runs, and the loss of point guard Kaitlyn Soto to a career-ending ACL injury, made the second half depressing for Aggie fans.
Next was the Aggie Athletic Club's 80th birthday party for legendary coach Lou Henson, held in the arena's practice gym. Some of Coach's history at New Mexico State has been discussed here in Sam Wasson's Legends post (with a good photo), and in another earlier post of mine. Lou Henson's status in Las Cruces is truly legendary, not just for his basketball accomplishments. Henson was a junior-college transfer to NMSU in the mid-1950s, playing for long-time Aggie baseball and basketball coach Presley Askew. After graduation, he found work at Las Cruces High School, teaching math and coaching basketball. It is a tribute to his skills at the former that many of his students discussing him today talk about math classes before basketball. Of course, he excelled at coaching basketball, winning three consecutive state championships in 1959-61. After that, he was given a shot at the university division (now Division I) coaching at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas. His success there in just four years, winning 20 games twice, placed him in their hall of fame. Interestingly enough, he also had an offer to assist Bob King at the University of New Mexico, but turned it down as Hardin-Simmons had agreed to integration of the team roster. He almost was a Lobo.
Back home in Las Cruces, Coach Askew retired as coach and his successor had a miserable year, so Henson was approached to return to Las Cruces. He did so and his accomplishments as coach, and soon athletic director, were many. In his first season (1966-67), the Aggies defeated the defending national champion Texas Western (now UTEP) Miners in both rivalry games (by 14 on their home court), and as an independent, NMSU got its first of five consecutive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. In his third season, the Aggies moved their games from Las Cruces High School (which had a 4,000-seat gym, compared to Williams Gym on campus which seated about 1,500) to the newly constructed Pan American Center, so named because it is adjacent to Interstate 25, the American section of the Pan American Highway, which traverses most of North and South America. The following year, the Aggies were sent to the Midwest region of the tournament, avoiding the UCLA juggernaut in the early rounds, and played the Bruins in the national semifinal in College Park, Md. That Final Four team was led by shooting guard Jimmy Collins (recently retired UIC coach) as well as long-time NBA players Sam Lacey (Kansas City-Omaha Kings center) and Charlie Criss (Atlanta Hawks guard). Two other notable players from that team attended the event Saturday, wing John Burgess, who later coached in the area and is now a school administrator, and guard Chito Reyes, later on the Mexican Olympic team.
The Aggies success continued through 1975, when Illinois hired Henson to replace Gene Bartow, who went to UCLA after John Wooden's retirement. He succeeded in the Big Ten as well, being one of only eleven coaches to take two different schools to the Final Four. After his 1996 Illinois retirement, he kept a home in Champaign (at that time, near grandchildren), but also had a place in Las Cruces (near good winter weather, and across the street from the NMSU golf course). When the Aggies needed to replace the coach just before the 1997-98 season because of an ugly NCAA investigation, Henson volunteered for the job. He literally volunteered, accepting a $1 token payment to be considered an employee; the check was for $0.77 after taxes. He retired again after eight more seasons, his Aggie teams having won 462 of 686 games he coached.
The party was fun, attended by Coach's family, former players and assistant coaches, and many friends from NMSU and the Las Cruces community.
(Pictured are Lou Henson, Bill Harty, and Mary Henson; thanks to Wayne Stickney of the Aggie Athletic Club for the photo.)
The Pan American Center court is named after Lou, and it was the site of the next event of the evening, the annual game designated as the Lou Henson Classic. The opponent was Fresno State, in the third of three straight games with the schools departing the WAC after this season. A little history between the schools: The Aggies lost to the Bulldogs in 1981, their only non-conference meeting. The schools were together in the PCAA (later Big West) starting in 1984. After NMSU lost five of the first six PCAA/Big West games, the Aggies won 12 straight, then split the last four before the Bulldogs joined the WAC. The Aggies won three of four Big West Tournament games. Since the Aggies came to the WAC, they have won seven of 12 games against the Bulldogs, and have lost only once at home.
The Bulldogs dictated the tempo throughout the contest, but there was very little rhythm to the entire game, since the Bulldogs have less of a half-court offense than the Aggies, whose half-court game is not one of their strengths. NMSU maintained a small lead through much of the first half before getting superhoops from guard Hernst Laroche and forward Wendell McKines in the last 1:05 to take a 35-27 halftime lead. The Aggies usually shoot a lot of free throws, from slashing to the basket, but Fresno State kept them mostly away in the first half, McKines shooting the first one with about six minutes to play. The other five first-half free throws were all missed; Daniel Mullings has now missed eight straight over two games. Meanwhile, Fresno made 10 of 13 first-half free throws, keeping them in a game where they had been outrebounded by about a dozen.
Second-half defenses were the same for both teams: the Bulldogs in a zone to exploit the Aggies' lack of outside shooting, the Aggies mostly in a man-to-man to try to stop the Bulldog outside attack. The first few minutes of the second half were just back and forth, but starting at about 17 minutes to play, the Bulldogs went on a 14-0 run, taking the lead by four before reserve guard Remi Barry made the Aggies' third superhoop of the night. (Each team ended with three three-pointers.) From that point, the Aggies began to play the game in their customary ugly style, cutting to the basket to get fouled and make some of the free throws. Aggies McKines, centers Hamidu Rahman and Tschilidzi Nephawe, and forward Tyrone Watson all scored inside or on free throws from trying to be in the paint. Bulldogs Kevin Olekaibe, Jonathan Wills and Jerry Brown all scored several jumpers (with a couple of dunks mixed in) to keep Fresno State even. With about one minute to go, Wendell McKines broke a 56-56 tie with a dunk of his own. Typical of this night, that was followed by a blocked shot, a turnover, a steal and missed jumper, and a foul by Fresno on the rebound. Uncharacteristically for this night, Tyrone Watson made both ends of the one-and-one, making the final 60-56.
The Aggies (5-2 in the WAC) ended the evening two games behind Nevada (7-0) at the midpoint of the WAC season, after the Wolf Pack's dramatic three-point play at the end of the game provided a two point victory at Louisiana Tech (3-4). Fresno State (1-6) is now in seventh, behind the logjam in third (4‑3 Hawai'i, Utah State and Idaho) and Tech, trailed only by San Jose State (0-7). The Nevada Wolf Pack and NMSU Aggies appear to be the WAC contenders for televised games in the Bracketbusters to be announced on Monday.
at NEW MEXICO STATE 60, FRESNO STATE 56 01/28/2012
FRESNO STATE 9-14 (1-6) -- D. Wright 7-14 10-12 24; J. Brown 4-6 5-7 13; K. Olekaibe 6-17 5-6 18; S. Shepp 1-2 0-0 3; T. Johnson 2-6 0-0 4; J. Wills 5-13 0-0 10; G. Johnson 2-4 0-0 5; K. Foster 0-1 3-4 3. Totals 20-49 13-17 56. NEW MEXICO STATE 15-7 (5-2) -- W. McKines 9-20 1-2 20; H. Laroche 2-7 0-0 5; T. Watson 2-6 4-9 8; D. Mullings 3-8 0-4 6; T. Nephawe 4-6 0-0 8; H. Rahman 3-5 2-2 8; R. Barry 2-4 0-1 5; B. Sy 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-58 7-18 60.
Three-point goals: FRES 3-15 (J. Wills 0-2; G. Johnson 1-1; S. Shepp 1-2; T. Johnson 0-1; K. Olekaibe 1-9), NMSU 3-12 (W. McKines 1-5; H. Laroche 1-3; T. Watson 0-1; B. Sy 0-1; R. Barry 1-2); Rebounds: FRES 24 (J. Brown Jr. 6), NMSU 42 (W. McKines 10); Assists: FRES 11 (T. Johnson 3), NMSU 14 (T. Watson 6); Total Fouls -- FRES 17, NMSU 13; Fouled Out: FRES-T. Johnson; NMSU-None.