TMM9 :: WAC Tournament Final: Freshman Bhullar Leads Aggies

(This is the thirty-ninth 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.)

Following a Friday of upsets in the WAC Tournament, the championship game matched the third-seeded New Mexico State Aggies (23-10, 14-4 WAC) and the fourth-seeded University of Texas at Arlington Mavericks (19-12, 11-7 WAC). The regular season games between these teams were the first of the conference season for each, a December 29 Maverick 68-47 victory in Arlington, and the final game of the regular season just a week ago, a March 9 Aggie 69-66 victory in Las Cruces. The Aggies reached the final by defeating Idaho, 65-49, and Texas State, 74-65. The Mavericks advanced with wins over Utah State, 83-78, and UTSA, 69-53.

The bands and cheerleaders filled the arena with sound, revving up the crowd for the evening’s festivities, the last game of the conference championship fortnight.

After the Mavericks inexpicably skipped the performance of the National Anthem, the lineups were introduced, and the game began.

The Aggies won the opening tip, but the game started slowly. The score was 4-0 at the first media timeout after baskets by NMSU center Sim Bhullar and shooting guard Daniel Mullings. The next four minutes was just the opposite, Arlington outscoring the Aggies 12-11 in a frenetic stretch that saw UTA small forward Kevin Butler score six points and a couple more hoops by Bhullar, three on a dunk and-one over Maverick forward Karol Gruszewski. Out of the timeout, Gruszewski led UTA on a 7-0 run, scoring a long three and a jumper just inside the arc, giving them a 19-15 lead. The Aggies scored five quick points (Frenchman Aggie forward Bandja Sy for three! Oui!) to briefly retake the lead, but Butler and other Mavericks kept them with a small lead for most of the rest of the period. NMSU had only one field goal after the Sy triple until forward Renaldo Dixon’s superhoop tied the score at thirty. With about 30 seconds to go, Mullings drove to the hoop for a layup; he then blocked Gruszewski’s attempt to tie, leaving the Aggies with the halftime lead, 32-30.

Tied for leading scorer of the first half was UTA’s Butler; Gruszecki added seven and Reves six. For the Aggies, Bhullar and Mullings each had ten points; Bhullar also had ten rebounds. The halftime entertainment, as it had been at the afternoon women’s final, was Red Panda.

Having scored the final five points of the first half to retake the lead, New Mexico State scored the first five of the second to expand it. With a couple of consecutive drives to the basket, Gruszecki cut the margin back to three. NMSU responded with another 9-0 run; Bhullar and point guard K. C. Ross-Miller each scored during both runs. By the first media timeout, which came with just over thirteen minutes to play, the Aggie lead was ten and the partisan crowd was excited.


(photo courtesy WAC)

The Mavericks had another response, with Reves scoring twice during an 11-3 burst bringing the Mavs back to trail only 51-47. Gruszecki fouled out of the game with 8:35 remaining, and UTA was never closer through the rest of the game. After Sy’s second superhoop of the second period, which came with about eleven minutes remaining, the Aggies only scored one more field goal, a Terrel de Rouen jumper with only 90 seconds to play. Of the sixteen free throw chances they got, NMSU made nine, and that was enough, as they held UTA to ten points in the final eight minutes to win the championship. Final score: New Mexico State 64, Texas-Arlington 55.

Three Mavericks scored in double figures: Butler got thirteen points and ten rebounds, Gruszecki eleven points, and Reves ten; Brandon Edwards added eight points for UTA. The Aggies were led by Bhullar’s sixteen points and fifteen rebounds, both high for the game. Mullings also had sixteen points, Sy added ten, and Ross-Miller nine. One of the key differences in the game was the Aggies ability to limit the Mavericks to one try at the basket; NMSU won the rebounding battle 41-29.
The All-Tournament team was named and included four players from this game, along with Joel Wright of Texas State. Mavericks Kevin Butler and Karol Gruzsecki joined Aggies Daniel Mullings and tournament MVP Sim Bhullar on the team. Four WAC teams would advance to postseason play: UTA went to the CIT, losing to Oral Roberts in the first round. Regular season co-champions Louisiana Tech and Denver both went to the NIT and won in the first round. LA Tech defeated Florida State before succumbing to Southern Mississippi; Denver defeated Ohio before losing at Maryland. New Mexico State received the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament; the Aggies faced Saint Louis in San Jose the following Thursday.

Here are a few of my photos of the post-game celebration:

(last two photos courtesy WAC) Visit the WAC’s tournament final photo album for more.