(This is the eighth installment of Bill Harty’s game recaps as part of The Mid Majority ninth season taking readers to mid-major college basketball games around the country. Visit midmajority.com to find out more about this group-sourced effort to spread the word about the many fine basketball programs around the country that are having success on and off the court while generally not having access to the resources brought to athletic programs by big-time college football. Bill will be recapping most Aggie home games, and the occasional road foray, for both The Mid Majority and bleedCrimson.net.)
It was the end of a long sports weekend in Las Cruces. After three basketball games on the Friday after Thanksgiving, with the students on their holiday hiatus, Saturday began with Aggie football, followed by George Mason’s 76-70 triumph in the consolation game of the Hotel Encanto Classic. Just under 1,000 dedicated fans were in the Pan American Center for the tournament final matching the UC-Irvine Anteaters against the host New Mexico State Aggies. (Shout out to the Roadrunner Revue pep band, who literally changed clothes after a long afternoon of football and came out to play for the women’s team; they even helped teach the new Pistol Pete how to do the Macarena!)
The Aggies and Anteaters had previously met sixteen times, mostly during the Aggies’ membership in the PCAA and Big West (same conference, different names), with NMSU holding a 16-10 advantage in those games. The two last met in the 2008 season opener, with the Aggies winning 78-55, in NMSU’s last season opening victory before this year. The teams reached the final by winning the prior night, Irvine beating Drake 69-64 for their first victory of the young season, and NMSU escaping George Mason, 55-52.
The game started with a new Aggie starter, freshman guard Sasha Weber, dropping in two three-pointers, which followed by a Kelsey Rozendaal bucket, put the Aggies ahead 8-0 at the first timeout. Soon, Weber hit a third superhoop to make the score 11-4 before several Anteaters (forward Mokun Fajemisin, forward Methlyn Onogomuho, and guard Jennifer Tsurumoto) contributed a pair of hoops each to help bring Irvine back to within one at 18-17. (The Irvine coach, Doug Oliver, must look for players who will intimidate radio announcers.) A banked-in triple by NMSU guard Danesia Williamson was answered by one from Irvine’s Cheyenne Cathey, making the halftime score NMSU 21, UC Irvine 20. Weber’s nine points led the Aggies, and Williamson added six. Tsurumoto’s eight led the Anteaters.
Irvine took the lead immediately on Kelly Meggs’s three-pointer, and kept it until Aggie guard Stefanie Gilbreath’s second three-pointer of the half tied the game at 29, and her third gave the Aggies the lead; Gilbreath scored the Aggies’ first eleven points of the half. She then assisted Sasha Weber’s fourth triple of the game, and Rozendaal put back an NMSU miss to build the lead to eight, 37-29. Irvine responded with an 8-0 run of their own, knotting the game at 37. A couple of Aggie buckets by Camila Rosen and Williamson gave NMSU a four point lead with three-and-a-half minutes to play.
During the final media timeout, Oliver said the magic word (whatever that was) to one of the officials, sending Weber to the line for two free throws; she made the second. After a couple of missed shots by each team, Irvine found themselves down seven points with 1:35 to play when Weber drove to the basket for a layup. The Anteaters’ made three layups, then applied a full court press and then fouled to stop the clock. This was to no avail as Weber made enough of the free throws (five of eleven), along with one of two by Williamson, to keep Irvine at bay, and bring the Aggies to a 50-44 victory.
Weber led all scorers with twenty; Gilbreath added thirteen and Williamson nine to account for forty-two of the Aggies’ fifty. Tsurumoto, leading the Irvine charge at the end, ended up with thirteen; five other Anteaters scored between four and six points each.
Irvine’s record fell to 1-5, and their December non-conference season features four road games and two home games, including tilts against WAC members Seattle, Idaho and Utah State, and a home-and-home with future WAC member Cal State-Bakersfield. Including an earlier loss to Denver, the Anteaters will face half of the WAC’s ten members this season.
The Aggies improved to 3-2; it was January 1 before last season’s team reached three wins, and they only won three more the rest of the way. The remainder of the non-conference slate will be tough, including the home-and-home against UTEP, a road trip to Southern Utah, and home games against New Mexico and Missouri-Kansas City leading up to the holidays. Returnee Rozendaal and incoming transfers Gilbreath and Williamson had already asserted themselves as leaders in earlier contests. Having freshman Sasha Weber score the Aggies’ first six, and eight of the last nine, of the game demonstrates the depth of talent that Coach Mark Trakh has brought to the Aggies for his second season.