TMM9 :: WAC Tournament Quarterfinals :: Mullings Leads Aggies To Victory

(This is the thirty-seventh 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.)

In the first quarterfinal of this year’s WAC men’s basketball tournament, the third-seeded New Mexico State Aggies played the sixth-seed, the Idaho Vandals. New Mexico State and Idaho are the only two schools that were in the WAC last year that will return next year, so this matchup is what passes for continuity in WAC basketball these days. The Aggies (21-10 overall, 14-4 WAC) have had two tough games against the Vandals (12-17, 7-11 WAC) this season, winning the January contest in Moscow 71-70 on a free throw by guard Daniel Mullings with 3.5 seconds remaining. The Las Cruces game in February was also taken by the Aggies, 76-74, on a pair of Mullings free throws with fourteen seconds remaining.

As you can tell from the scores, the Vandals create some matchup issues for the Aggies. Led by WAC player of the year Kyle Barone, the Vandals have an inside game to rival the Aggies. Forward Wendell Faines and center Joe Kammerer have done a good job competing with the Aggies in the paint. Guards Stephen Madison and Connor Hill are very capable of keeping a defense honest by making long-range jumpers; point guard Mike McChristian doesn’t focus on scoring. The Vandals also competed well, but came up just short in the other Idaho game I attended this year, a 64-60 loss at UTEP.

Voice of the Aggies Jack Nixon, working on his second thousand Aggie basketball broadcasts, celebrated a birthday today, and the band played “Happy Birthday” as the several thousand Aggie fans in attendance stood and sang. The bands and cheer squads help make the conference tournaments special; here are a few pictures.

It was a game-time decision whether Aggie senior forward Tyrone Watson would play today. Watson, who injured his right ankle in a collision in last week’s game against Louisiana Tech, dressed like he would play, but did not participate in shooting drills before the game, and received attention from the trainers before the game. He did not play and the Aggies started with their big lineup featuring center Sim Bhullar and power forward Renaldo Dixon; this might have been a good idea regardless of Watson’s injury. The other starters were Mullings, point guard K. C. Ross-Miller and wing Bandja Sy.

The game started at noon, and Aggie 7’5” center Bhullar won the opening jump ball, as he often does. The Vandals opened in a man-to-man defense; McChristian got the first basket driving after a steal. The game was close early, tied at ten before the Aggies opened up a 20-15 lead. Barone scored eight of the first fifteen for the Vandals on a couple of dunks, a sweet reverse layup and a baseline jumper. Mullings would have made the same number of points had his first free throw not rimmed out. Hill’s second jumper tied the game at twenty-five before a couple of Mullings drives put the Aggies ahead at the intermission 32-28. Reserve point guard Terrel de Rouen’s 75-foot attempt at the buzzer was close to increasing that, but the time expired before he got the shot off.
Barone and Mullings led the game’s first half scoring with eleven each. The Aggies led by three rebounds, and shot 59% from the floor compared to 44% by the Vandals. Three Aggies made a three-pointer in the half; there was only one from the Vandals.

The teams traded baskets, before eight consecutive Aggie points created a little separation and a 42-30 lead. The Vandals immediately responded with seven points, closing the gap to five with ten minutes to play. The Aggie wings went to work: Sy dropped in a fourteen-footer on the baseline, then backed up and did it again for three. Mullings drove to the basket for a couple of layups, and drew several fouls. Despite the efforts of Barone and Hill, the Aggie lead grew to eight with three minutes to play, 57-49. De Rouen made a quick layup on a great pass from Mullings, then this: a de Rouen pass to Sy that was #6 on the SportsCenter plays of the day. The Vandals did not score again, and the final was NMSU 65, Idaho 49.

Leading scorers for the Vandals were Barone with nineteen and Hill with fourteen. For the game, the Vandals were held to 40% shooting. Their eighteenth loss ends a disappointing season for Idaho, who lost a number of close games after being expected to finish in the top half of the WAC.
Mullings continued to be the Vandals’ nemesis this season, leading the Aggies with 23 points; Sy added fourteen points and shared the game’s rebounding leadership with Bhullar with seven each. New Mexico State advances to play the winner of the following game between the Denver Pioneers and the Texas State Bobcats in the tournament semifinals.

Surprise! The AggieVision crew made the trip to Vegas; they produced video highlights.