TMM9 :: Another Streak Ends in Las Cruces

(This is the thirty-third 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.)

What a season for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs! Coming into the final weekend of the regular season, they had twenty-six wins, having won all fourteen home games and the last eighteen contests consecutively, the nation’s longest active streak. Although two of their three losses (at Texas A&M, Northwestern State, and McNeese State) were to teams of questionable standing, the most recent one of those was on December 12. The first win of the streak on December 17 at UALR was attended by my Ballyfest Destiny teammate, Craig Caswell. The Bulldogs made a strong statement on the opening weekend of the conference season, sweeping two of the three teams expected to contend with them for the WAC title: Denver (68-60) and New Mexico State (81-72); the NMSU win ended a seven-game win streak for the Aggies over the Bulldogs. By a strange quirk of scheduling (or some amazing foresight by the WAC office), the Bulldogs’ road trip to New Mexico State and Denver is on this final weekend of the regular season, and they are the top three teams in the standings. LA Tech has a little extra motivation against New Mexico State this year; their miracle run through the 2012 WAC Tournament, including wins over favored Utah State and top seed Nevada, was stopped by the Aggies in the final.

New Mexico State arrived at this weekend somewhat disappointed that their regular season championship chances disappeared with relatively close losses at Utah State and Denver over the past three weeks. Barring unexpected strangeness in the results around the league, the Aggies (19-10, 12-4 WAC) seemed destined for third place in the conference. The Aggies were playing for momentum going into Las Vegas for the tournament. History is on the Aggies’ side in this matchup; NMSU leads the all-time series 15-4, and has never lost to Louisiana Tech outside of Ruston. A little special motivation for Aggie sophomore guard Daniel Mullings: he was beaten out by Bulldog Raheem Appleby as WAC Freshman of the Year in 2012; Mullings was the high scorer with twenty-one in the early season game in Ruston.

In front of a crowd numbering nearly seven thousand, Tech won the opening tip. Sophomore (like NMSU, the Bulldogs have only two seniors on the roster) forward Michale Kyser scored a quick eleven-foot jumper, and the Bulldogs pressed full-court, something they would continue most of the game after made baskets. The Aggies took a brief lead on a put back by freshman center Sim Bhullar, and one made free throw (of two) by Mullings, before the Tech defense keyed a 6-0 scoring run and an NMSU timeout after only three minutes had been played. The Aggies got a couple of buckets after the break, but the Bulldogs stretched a following 8-0 run to 12-3, at that point leading 21-10. NMSU was still having trouble with the press, and recent point guard starter Terrel de Rouen was on the bench because of the flu. Five different Bulldogs had scored, and to maintain their pace, Tech coach Mike White was substituting freely; eleven LA Tech players saw first half action.

At that point, the Aggies figured out how to break the Tech press. When the smoke cleared with about three minutes left in the half, NMSU had been on a 23-3 run that brought the Aggies back from trailing 23-13 to leading 36-26. Six different Aggies scored in that stretch; senior forward Tyrone Watson led the way with six points. The teams traded points, Tech mostly field goals, State mostly free throws, for the rest of the half. At the intermission, the score was New Mexico State 43, Louisiana Tech 34. First-half scoring leaders for the Bulldogs were Appleby with eleven, Kyser with six, and junior guards Cordarius Johnson and Jaron Johnson with five each. Watson led the Aggie scoring with ten. Senior forward Bandja Sy added eight, starting point guard K. C. Ross-Miller tallied seven, while Mullings and de Rouen scored five each.

The second period began with dunks by Mullings (assist by Bhullar) and Sy (assist by Watson) and a Louisiana Tech timeout after forty-four seconds had been played. White apparently reminded his squad of their strategy: take the ball inside to draw fouls from Bhullar, which they did pretty effectively over the following four minutes. Bhullar fouled freshman Alex Hamilton twice; Hamilton scored five of the Bulldog points in a 7-0 run that sliced the NMSU lead to six. Bulldog forward J. L. Lewis fouled Watson, and then rolled over his ankle, bringing him to the floor. Watson was assisted to the bench, but returned later with a noticeable limp.

From this point forward, Daniel Mullings took control of the game. He tipped in a missed shot. He made both free throws on a one-and-one opportunity. He drove for a running four-foot jumper, followed by a layup. He stepped outside the arc for a three-pointer. He took a great pass from Ross-Miller for a spectacular dunk. Meanwhile, the Aggie lead grew slowly to ten, fell back to nine, then, aided by a 13-3 scoring outburst, nine by Mullings, grew to nineteen (73-54) at the final media timeout. After another minute, White cleared his bench, taking a timeout to get the subs into the game. There was a strange interaction between White and Aggie mentor Marvin Menzies; it appeared that White expected Menzies to clear his bench as well at this juncture, which, knowing his team’s ball handling ability deep in the roster, Menzies declined to do. The Aggies held the ball through the shot clock on several possessions, and won the game by eighteen.

The Aggies shot 55% from the field and made ten more free throws, fourteen more rebounds, and six more assists than the Bulldogs; they also blocked five more shots. Bulldogs Appleby (thirteen) and Hamilton (eleven) led their team in scoring. Mullings scored eighteen in the second half for a game total of twenty-three points; he also had eight rebounds, four steals and three assists. Watson and Sy each scored ten points; Watson grabbed eleven rebounds, Sy eight. Point guards de Rouen (ten) and Ross-Miller (nine) also contributed significantly to the scoring. Bhullar had more of a defensive game, keeping Tech away from the basket, blocking five shots (adding to his NMSU season block record), and also getting three assists. Aggie Vision broadcast the game and recorded video highlights.

The Sundancers and cheerleaders rushed onto the floor as the game ended, and after a brief pause, the student section followed. Not sure that beating a team that has never beaten you on your floor in a game in which you were slightly favored justifies a court storming, but ending the nation’s longest active win streak against a team at the edge of the top 25 seemed to be enough to make it happen. The Aggies have now ended win streaks by all three of the other teams in the top four of the WAC: Utah State’s after thirteen wins, Denver’s after seven, and Louisiana Tech’s after eighteen.

Louisiana Tech now heads into the expected snow storm in Denver to play the Pioneers; a Denver win would give them a tie for the regular season championship, although it would be nearly impossible for Denver to win the one-seed for the tournament because of the WAC tie breaker. The two schools would have the same record against every other team in the league, so the RPI would be used to break the deadlock. Before Saturday’s games, Tech’s RPI ranking (according to bbstate.com) was 49 and Denver’s 59. (NMSU’s ranking was 57.)

The Aggies conclude the season seeking to avenge the season-opening defeat by Texas-Arlington in a game that has no standings or tournament seeding implications for either school. Arlington will play Utah State in the 4-5 game on Thursday. NMSU is locked into being the third seed in the tournament and will face Idaho, a team the Aggies swept by a total of three points in the regular season.