TMM9 :: The Rio Grande Rivalry Continues

(This is the twelfth 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.)

The Rio Grande Rivalry measures the competition between New Mexico State and New Mexico in the fourteen sports they sponsor in common. Points are assigned to each sport and divided among the contests between the two schools. In basketball, both men's and women's, as well as baseball and softball, there are always multiple games each year; some years there are also multiple volleyball matches. New Mexico has won the overall contest each year since it started in 2007-08; last year's rivalry would have been a tie had the decision gone the other way in a May 15 baseball victory for the Lobos, 12-10 in eleven innings; it was the only Lobo victory in the four games played last season. This year, the Aggies have won the volleyball points, but nothing else to date, including last night's second rivalry game for women's basketball.

The men's basketball rematch between New Mexico and New Mexico State did not have to wait long this year. Four days after playing in Albuquerque's Pit, the teams tipped off again in NMSU's Pan American Center. Despite the students being gone for the holidays, there were 8177 people in attendance at the game, partly because of this full page ad that ran daily for two weeks in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

NMSU again won the tip and scored the first basket, this time by senior forward Tyrone Watson. On the second possession, Lobo guard Kendall Williams went down, turning his right ankle or knee; he had to be assisted from the court. Over the next couple of minutes, the Lobos took at 8-4 lead, with a Tony Snell basket sandwiched between Chad Adams #superhoops; Watson contributed a couple of free throws for the Aggies. Something about Adams' second three set off an Aggie superhoop barrage: first Bandja Sy from the wing, then reserve center Renaldo Dixon got one. After a Daniel Mullings driving layup, Remi Barry added another three. The 13-2 run made the score 17-10, but the Aggies weren't finished. Mullings made another short jumper, followed by three pointers by Terrel deRouen and Tyrone Watson.

Since the Lobos never expected the Aggies to make long shots, they remained in a zone defense up to this point, when Lobo coach Steve Alford made the switch to a man defense, and chewed on his team during the media timeout. UNM response: an 11-0 run, tying the score, led by nine points from none other than Kendall Williams, who returned to the court with about 14 minutes to play in the half. NMSU response: taking back the lead on a #superhoop from yet another Aggie (the sixth!), shooting guard Kevin Aronis, the first junior college player brought in by NMSU coach Marvin Menzies; Aronis came here to shoot threes. The rest of the first half was back and forth, and when Bandja Sy's attempt to be the first Aggie with two first-half #superhoops failed, the Lobos went to the locker room with a 34-32 lead.

Unlike the earlier game in Albuquerque, for the most part the big, young centers for each team held each other in check. Lobo backup Cameron Bairstow had nine first half points, while starter Alex Kirk was held scoreless. The Aggie combination of Sim Bhullar and Renaldo Dixon, in the absence of injured Tshilidzi Nephawe, scored five points for the Aggies. The Aggies' man-to-man defense was effective, and they stayed with it the entire half; I believe this is a first for this season. The scoring load was carried by the guards. Williams had thirteen of the twenty-five scored by UNM guards to lead the scoring. Senior wings Tyrone Watson (nine) and Bandja Sy (five), led the Aggies. Most remarkable was that six different Aggies had three-point goals in the first half.

The Aggies opened the second half with the ball, and Watson scored to tie the game at 34. Kirk and Bhullar got dunks; Williams and K. C. Ross-Miller (a seventh Aggie!) got triples. Game tied at 39. A Williams driving layup was offset by two Mullings free throws; tied at 41. The Lobos went on a quick 8-0 run: Snell getting a triple, Nick Banyard with a dunk from the bench, Snell with the and-one on Watson's third foul. Remi Barry made a driving scoop, and Aronis made a superhoop to pull the Aggies back within three.

Referee Verne Harris, from the south end of the floor, called a technical foul on the Aggie bench (at the north end), and Williams made the free throws; it really did not seem to change the momentum either way. Aronis made a third triple to cut the lead to two. The Aggies went into a zone briefly and returned to the man a bit later. The UNM lead grew and shrank, reaching two again at several points, widening as far as seven at 61-54 with 2:46 to play.

Bhullar's dunk cut the lead to five. Watson fouled out and Snell made one of two free throws. Adams fouled out and Mullings made both throws; lead down to four. Snell dropped in a jumper before Ross-Miller fouled Williams with 0:26.4 on the clock; Williams coolly dropped the two charity tosses. Timeout Lobos. Then, Aronis made his fourth trifecta of the game, cutting the lead to five, then fouled Lobo guard Jamal Fenton with 0:15.4 left in the game. Fenton missed both free throws, but stole the rebound and laid it in. Inexplicably, Kirk committed his fifth foul with 2.5 seconds remaining, and Dixon made both throws for the Aggies, but there was not enough time to do anything further. The Lobos won, 68-63.

The two halves were eerily similar: the Lobos scored thirty-four in each half; the Aggies thirty-two in the first, and thirty-one in the second. Scoring leadership continued to come from the guards. Lobos Williams (eleven second-half points) and Snell (nine) led UNM; Aggies Mullings and Aronis (nine each) led NMSU. The power forward ("four") for each team fouled out: NMSU's Watson and UNM's Adams. Inside production was small: four each for Bhullar and Kirk, two for NMSU's Dixon, and none for UNM's Bairstow.

For the game, Williams led all scorers with twenty-four, followed for the Lobos by Snell's eleven, Hugh Greenwood's ten, and Bairstow's (first-half) nine. The Aggies were again led by Mullings with thirteen; Aronis added twelve and Watson eleven. Shooting percentages were close in total, but the Aggies made a scary 59% from the three-point line, offset by only making 55% of their free throws. Missing the front end of two one-and-one attempts, and both of two shots twice in the second half turned out to be costly: These eight points would have more than offset the five point ending deficit. Alford is now 10-2 against Menzies; each is in the sixth year in his position.

UNM has three more non-conference games remaining before beginning the Mountain West quest: at home Saturday against Nate Wolters and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (I should have trusted the weather and made the trip for the afternoon RLU!), then two tough road contests at Cincinatti and Saint Louis. NMSU hosts Missouri State on Saturday, before a week's break precedes the start of WAC play on the road at UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech.