The day after Thanksgiving, New Mexico State basketball fans saw the first round games of the women's Hotel Encanto Classic. In the first, the Anteaters of the University of California at Irvine nipped the Drake Bulldogs 69-64; the second saw the NMSU Aggies defeat the George Mason Patriots 55-52. The third game of the day involved the Aggie men's team; they hosted the Ragin' Cajuns of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The men's game was dedicated to former Aggie player Kelsey Crooks. Crooks was a standout player at Las Cruces Oñate High School, leading the state in scoring his senior year and setting Oñate records that still stand. He then played four years for Lou Henson ending in 2004; he was a good player, averaging about eight points and six rebounds per game in his senior year, and was well liked and respected in the community for his work with youth sports, and his strength during his mother's battle with cancer that began while he was playing for the Aggies. Soon after his graduation, Crooks was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, which finally took his life during the summer of 2012. At halftime, Crooks's father, who played football for the Aggies, his brother and young nephew were introduced to the crowd, and Kelsey received one more standing ovation in the Pan American Center. RIP, Kelsey.
(photo courtesy NMSU Sports Information)
Researching the history between these two teams, I was surprised to find that the Cajuns had won ten of the fourteen previous contests against New Mexico State. The four Aggie wins were in the 1992 NCAA tournament second round in Tempe, sending the Aggies to the Sweet Sixteen in Albuquerque, the first Aggie home game when they joined the Sunbelt in 2001, and both games of a same-season home-and-home series in late 2010. Louisiana won the initial game in Lafayette in 1982 and nine of the ten Sunbelt games between 2001 and 2005, including the last eight conference games played.
Coming into Las Cruces, the Cajuns had won two games at home, by one over Oakland and by ten over Southern of New Orleans, a member of the NAIA Gulf Coast Athletic Conference. Their two road games were both losses, at Texas Southern by three as recapped by fellow Ballyfest Destiny member Craig Hanford, and at Boise State by six. (Craig's story includes a history of how "USL" became "ULL.") The Aggies were 2-3, winning both home contests, losing two on the road, and also losing a neutral site game.
The Aggies won the opening tip and scored the game's first ten points. After a Shawn Long #superhoop and a couple of free throws made the score 10-5, the Aggies scored fourteen of the next seventeen, seven by guard Daniel Mullings; The run was capped by a monster #omgdunx from wing Bandja Sy, causing ULL to use its second timeout.
The rout continued, pretty much unabated for the remainder of the half. The halftime score was 41-18. Sy had eleven points to lead NMSU (and the game); Mullings and center Tshilidzi Nephawe each added seven, while guard K. C. Ross-Miller and forward Kevin Aronis scored six each, Aronis hitting two #superhoops. Long and forward Matthew Moss scored six each for the Cajuns.
At the beginning of the halftime break, Aggie volleyball coach Michael Jordan collected a standing ovation for the Aggies' outstanding play during the WAC volleyball tournament earlier in the week, garnering his sixth NCAA tournament bid as the NMSU coach, and the first as WAC champions.
The second half started with a missed three-pointer attempt by the Cajuns, and a player collision, which sent Mullings to the medical staff for eight stitches above his eye and closing a gash in his lip. This created a long delay while he was stabilized, then the floor was cleaned. After that, the game continued for about ten minutes in a similar fashion to the first half; NMSU led 67-30 with ten minutes to play and was substituting freely.
Louisiana then went on a 9-0 run that was interrupted by a technical foul on Cajun coach Bob Marlin, the first of three technicals called for mouthing at the officials. (The other two were on one player from each team.) After Aronis made the second of the two foul shots, the Cajuns scored another ten consecutive points. For the fans, this 19-1 run recalled the specter of the prior week's collapse at Niagara, where the Aggies lost after leading by twenty-two in the second half.
Fortunately, at this point Mullings emerged from the locker room, sewn together, smiling and waving to the crowd. Although he did not return to the game, he did provide enough inspiration to slow the Cajun onslaught. Probably just as unfortunate for Louisiana, there was not enough time left to complete their comeback and the final score was NMSU 79, Louisiana 57.
Louisiana guard Steven Wronkowski scored fourteen of his sixteen points in the second half, tallying four of the Cajuns' nine three-pointers in the game. Long ended up with fifteen points. The Aggies had five double-figure scorers led by Sy's sixteen tallies. Aronis and fellow wing Tyrone Watson added twelve each; Watson's all came in the second half. Freshman point guard Ross-Miller scored eleven, while Nephawe scored ten to go with his eleven rebounds.
The Cajuns' road trip continued with a Sunday game at Michigan State that was much closer than this one. Louisiana next has a couple of early Sunbelt conference games, hosting Middle Tennessee and visiting North Texas, before playing their final four non-conference tilts. On Wednesday, the Aggies play the first of three games before a break for final exams, traveling south to rival UTEP for the first game of their annual home-and-home series.
at NEW MEXICO STATE 79, LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 57 11/23/2012
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 2-3 (0-0) -- B. Mbamalu 2-9 2-2 6; S. Wronkoski 4-7 4-4 16; E. Payton 1-8 0-2 2; E. Moore 1-2 0-0 2; K. Shepherd 2-6 1-2 5; S. Long 5-15 3-3 15; M. Moss 2-7 0-0 6; K. Brown 1-2 0-0 3; A. Thompson 0-2 0-0 0; C. Barnett 0-2 0-0 0; D. Williams 1-2 0-0 2; B. Lazare 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 19-64 10-13 57. NEW MEXICO STATE 3-3 (0-0) -- B. Sy 6-8 2-2 16; K. Ross-Miller 1-6 9-11 11; K. Aronis 4-8 1-2 12; T. Watson 4-5 4-5 12; T. Nephawe 4-8 2-7 10; D. Mullings 3-5 0-0 7; R. Dixon 1-3 3-4 5; S. Bhullar 1-1 1-5 3; R. Barry 0-2 0-0 0; B. West 0-4 0-0 0; E. Weary 1-2 0-0 3; E. Coleman 0-0 0-0 0; T. de Rouen 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-53 22-36 79.
Three-point goals: ULL 9-26 (K. Brown 1-1; B. Mbamalu 0-2; D. Williams 0-1; A. Thompson 0-2; S. Long 2-6; M. Moss 2-6; K. Shepherd 0-2; S. Wronkoski 4-6), NMSU 7-18 (B. Sy 2-2; K. Ross-Miller 0-2; R. Barry 0-2; T. de Rouen 0-1; D. Mullings 1-2; E. Weary 1-2; K. Aronis 3-7); Rebounds: ULL 27 (B. Mbamalu 7), NMSU 49 (T. Nephawe 11); Assists: ULL 12 (K. Shepherd 4), NMSU 12 (D. Mullings 3); Total Fouls -- ULL 26, NMSU 13; Fouled Out: ULL-S. Long; NMSU-None.