TMM9 :: Aggies Hand Vandals Another Tough Loss

(This is the twenty-sixth 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.)

Prior to Idaho joining the Big West, there had only been one basketball game between New Mexico State and the Vandals, an 81-69 Aggie victory in the 1964 Anaconda, Montana, tournament. Since then, the teams have met 24 times. The Aggies won six of eight contests while both were members of the Big West, and sixteen of the eighteen since the Aggies came to the WAC, including an NMSU win in the 2008 WAC Tournament in Las Cruces. The Vandals had never won in the Pan American Center, losing twelve straight. In their earlier meeting this season, the Aggies squeaked out a 71-70 win in Moscow, on Daniel Mullings’ second free throw with three seconds remaining after he missed the first.

The Idaho Vandals (9-12, 5-6 WAC) were on their third trip to the desert southwest, having lost to New Mexico in Albuquerque, 73-58, on November 23, and to UTEP, 64-60, in El Paso on December 8. Their five WAC victories had come over the four teams in the bottom of the standings along with a 13-point road win at Texas-Arlington, in fifth place coming into the weekend. New Mexico State (15-8, 9-2 WAC) was riding a nine-game win streak, beating all comers since opening weekend losses at Texas-Arlington and league-leading Louisiana Tech. The Aggies were without previous starting center Tshilidzi Nephawe, whose early December hand injury against South Alabama appears to have ended his junior season (with a medical redshirt likely), starting point guard KC Ross-Miller with a nagging hamstring injury, and starting forward Tyrone Watson, suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.

The Aggies started sophomore point guard Terrel de Rouen, sophomore shooting guard Daniel Mullings, senior wing Bandja Sy, junior post/wing Renaldo Dixon, and freshman center Sim Bhullar. Idaho’s lineup included senior point guard Mike McChristian, senior guard Mansa Habeeb, sophomore guard Connor Hill, senior forward Wendell Faines, and senior center Kyle Barone, the WAC’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. Because of the Aggies’ size with Dixon starting at the four, the WAC’s sixth leading scorer, wing Stephen Madison would come off the bench, and backup center Joe Kammerer would see significant action. The game promised a showcase matchup between Barone and Bhullar, with the freshman seeming to improve with each game’s experience.

Barone won the opening tip, the first time in a while Bhullar had lost one, and the Vandals scored the games’ first five points. A superhoop by de Rouen tied the game at nine, and the Aggies again tied it at eleven and thirteen without taking a lead. After a Mullings three cut the lead back to two with about eight minutes in the half, the Vandals took the first significant run of the game, a 10-2 stretch including two McChristian superhoops that caused Aggie coach Marvin Menzies to use a timeout with just over five minutes to go. Whatever Menzies said in the huddle was effective, as the Aggies made a 12-2 run of their own behind five points each from Bhullar and Dixon; Dixon’s three-pointer with just over two minutes remaining gave NMSU its first lead, 31-30. Barone’s layup immediately returned the lead to the Vandals, but Aggie junior guard Kevin Aronis drilled a superhoop from the right wing giving NMSU the halftime lead, 36-35.

The Vandals shot 50% for the first half, lead by 7-11 shooting from Barone, whose fifteen points lead all scorers; McChristian was second with eight points while reserve centers Kammerer and Faines failed to score. The Aggie centers won the scoring battle, as Dixon had twelve points and Bhullar nine in the half. The Aggies shot a respectable 46% from the floor. The game was not closely called, as there were only nine first half fouls, two each on Madison, Kammerer and Faines for Idaho, while three different Aggies had one each; each team only attempted five first-half free throws, each making three. Neither team went very deep into its bench, with eight Vandals and seven Aggies seeing action.

At the intermission, the Aggies honored all student-athletes achieving a 3.0 or higher grade point average during the past year; over 300 were so honored, and most of them were present to be recognized.

After Barone scored the second period’s first basket, a couple of Bhullar hoops and a Bandja Sy fast-break basket gave the Aggies a five-point margin, which induced a timeout from Vandal head coach Don Verlin. His team responded with six straight points to retake the lead, before a couple of Aggie buckets put them again ahead by four. A Madison “and-one” pulled the Vandals within one before a 10-2 Aggie burst, fueled by top-of-the-key superhoops from de Rouen and Barry, caused another Verlin timeout. The NMSU lead varied between six and nine points up to the final media timeout; during this stretch Aronis contributed a couple of superhoops for the Aggies, while Hill scored nine Vandal points.

Coming out of the timeout, Barone’s free throw cut the margin to five. After Bhullar’s tip-in, Madison’s superhoop made the difference four. Sy made a jumper. Hill scored a nice give-and-go layup, but missed the free throw after Mullings fouled him. Faines fourth foul sent Bhullar to the line; he made the first and missed the second. De Rouen’s fourth foul sent Hill to the line; he drilled them both, cutting the lead to three. Dixon’s third foul was a charge, and Hill’s superhoop on the resulting possession tied the game at 74 with 42 seconds to play. Sy rebounded an Aggie miss and was fouled by Madison with 26 seconds left. After a long, long review of the monitor at the scorer’s table resulted in no change to the call, Sy missed the front end of the one-and-one. As the teams headed to the other end of the court, De Rouen stole the ball from McChristian, and passed to Mullings.

With fourteen seconds remaining, Madison’s fifth foul sent Mullings to the line, similar to the earlier game in Moscow. This time, Mullings made both throws giving NMSU a two-point lead. The Vandals got two shots off in the remaining fourteen seconds: a jumper by Faines rebounded by Habeeb and a jumper by Habeeb; Barone’s tip in of Habeeb’s miss was ruled to have come after the buzzer ended the half. After reviewing the monitor at the scorer’s table and of the television broadcast’s replay, the officials decided they had ruled correctly, and the Aggies escaped with a 76-74 victory.

Connor Hill led the Vandals’ second-half scoring with sixteen points giving him twenty-one for the game, but Barone led all scorers with a total of twenty-six. McChristian ended with twelve points for the game, and Madison nine. The Aggies were led by Bhullar, whose eleven second-half points gave him twenty in the game. Dixon and de Rouen each added twelve, Aronis and Sy nine each, and Barry and Mullings each scored seven. Sy added fifteen rebounds, more than doubling the next highest total from either team.

The Vandals’ road trip got no easier on the following Saturday, as they were headed to Denver. The Aggies extended their win streak to ten, and were to host, on Saturday, the Seattle Redhawks for the first time since December 1970.