TMM9 :: Pioneers Nail Down The Two-Seed

(This is the thirty-second 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.)

This weekend’s INCREDIBLY LARGE GAME in the WAC was the second meeting of the year between the second- and third-place teams in the standings, the Denver Pioneers (18-8 overall, 13-2 in the WAC) and the New Mexico State Aggies (19-9, 12-3).

Denver had won its prior seven games, including five away from home, since the teams’ first meeting in Las Cruces, won by the Aggies 53-42 in a game that was not that close. NMSU also won their most recent game, the second of the rivalry series with UTEP.

As is often the case, NMSU won the opening tip. The first five minutes broke fairly evenly, and gave a good flavor of what was to come. Denver led 11-7 on three superhoops, two by junior forward Chris Udofia; the other triple and the two-pointer were from sophomore forward Royce O’Neale. Freshman center Sim Bhullar scored five of the Aggies’ points on two dunks (it’s hard to call them omgdunx when he doesn’t have to leave his feet for them) and sophomore guard Daniel Mullings added a pair of free throws. Both teams were playing intense man-to-man defense, the Pioneers sagging toward the basket enough that it was sometimes hard to tell man from zone; the Pioneers were focused on keeping the ball away from Bhullar, and the officials were allowing significant contact inside, something he will have to continue to learn to deal with. In the next stretch, the Aggies went on a 10-2 run with all ten points coming inside: another dunk from Bhullar, a bucket each from forwards Tyrone Watson and Renaldo Dixon, and four points from wing Bandja Sy. Udofia was fouled by Bhullar and surprisingly missed both free throws. Watson got a great shot block, but gave up two free throws by guard Brett Olson for a taunting technical foul. The Aggie lead expanded to five and contracted to one twice, the second time on forward Chase Hallam’s superhoop with just over a minute to play. After a couple of NMSU fouls and more missed Denver free throws, this turned out to be the halftime margin: NMSU 28, Denver 27.

A few statistics illustrate the half pretty well. NMSU was six of seven from the free throw line, while Denver was only four of nine; from outside the arc, Denver made five three-point goals to NMSU’s none. Udofia was the leading scorer for the Pioneers with ten; Olson and O’Neale had five each. Bhullar led the Aggies with ten of his own, with seniors Sy and Watson adding six each.

The second half got off to a sloppy start: Udofia missed a jumper, Hallam clubbed Bhullar during his rebound attempt (no call), and Aggie sophomore point guard Terrel de Rouen airballed a three-point attempt. The Aggies pushed their lead to seven with strong defense and rebounding; Udofia picked up two quick fouls, Denver used a timeout when they could not make an inbounds pass, and on the ensuing possession committed a shot clock violation. The Aggies continued to go inside for scoring: Bhullar and Sy each scored four, including a dunk in the next few minutes; except for an excellent reverse layup by Olson, the Pioneers continued to attack from outside: Udofia and O’Neale superhoops added to an Olson jumper kept Denver right in the game.

Before O’Neale’s triple, NMSU led 42-37. Denver, somewhat unusually this early in a half, took a timeout on their made basket with 12:14 to go, and got a longer discussion with Coach Joe Scott on the under-12 media timeout. The Pioneers returned to the floor with renewed intensity. O’Neale made a pair of free throws. Denver guard Cam Griffiin picked up two quick common fouls, but stopped the Aggies. First Dixon, then K. C. Ross-Miller picked up fouls for the Aggies, before Hallam’s backdoor layup put Denver into the lead. Ross-Miller fouled O’Neale, who missed both free throws. Olson’s backdoor layup was followed by one from Marcus Byrd, and Aggie coach Marvin Menzies called timeout presumably to close the back door, now trailing by six. Griffin got a third foul, then scored the Pio’s fourth consecutive backdoor layup, then two free throws when de Rouen was called for a deliberate foul (his fourth) on Griffin’s breakaway; the second throw was the fifteenth consecutive Denver point and their lead was ten. Bhullar made the first of two free throws to end the drought, but missed the second. The Aggies instituted a full court press, but Hallam again found the backdoor open.

With four minutes to play and the Denver lead still ten, Mullings tried to take the game in hand, scoring six quick points, four on free throws, including two from a deliberate foul by Hallam, then a layup on the ensuing possession. After a Denver timeout, Bandja Sy dropped in a superhoop from the left wing, the Aggies’ first of the game, cutting the lead to one with just under two minutes to play. A blocking foul on Dixon (his fourth) resulted in two more O’Neale free throws. Hallam made a steal and called a quick timeout to retain possession, then made the most of that possession by delivering a superhoop dagger from the right wing with forty-nine seconds remaining; Denver’s lead was now six. Immediately, Sy made his second triple of the final minutes halving the lead with thirty five seconds to play. The Aggies tried to foul Denver to lengthen the game, but the Pioneers made all six free throws while missing several shots, including two strongly contested three-point tries by the hero of the Aggies previous game against UTEP, guard Kevin Aronis. Sy made a final superhoop before time expired; Denver had held on to second place in the WAC, 66-60.

It was good to meet Brendan Loy, @MileHighMids, in person during the second half. He commented that this was one of the few times he remembered a significant student presence at a basketball game; this squared with my prior experience when these schools were together in the Sun Belt. I attended a December basketball game where the majority of the fans were rooting for NMSU; on the next night, I saw a crazed crowd in the same Magness Arena for Pioneer hockey. The students were well lubricated from the pre-game “tailgate,” and celebrated their team’s victory.

This was a hard-fought contest squaring the season series at one game each; I expect to see these teams play again in a semifinal on Friday of the WAC tournament. Next weekend both of these teams will host Louisiana Tech and Texas-Arlington to complete the regular season. Depending on the results of those games, Denver could still finish first, second or possibly third in the season standings; NMSU could climb to second or fall to fourth, but will most likely finish third. Following those games, the three-game season that decides who plays where in the postseason; I would expect NMSU, Denver, and Louisiana Tech all to play in the postseason: one in the NCAA Championship, the other two in the NIT.