(This is the fortieth 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.)
I was sure at the end of my nineteen-game week in Las Vegas (the WCC final, all 18 M/W WAC tournament games) that my season was over. I was so tired that I slept the entire trip on the plane home, through the St. Patrick’s Day party at my spouse’s college roommate’s home, and through the family birthday dinner at my sister’s. But late that night, I checked on whether bleedcrimson.net, where my NMSU recaps are published, could get us media credentials for San Jose, where the Aggies were to meet A-10 champion Saint Louis. I had an orphaned free ticket on Southwest that I had been trying to use for over a year; it would expire forever in April. So I gave that a shot and, surprise (!), there was a seat available to get to San Jose. I checked my frequent hotel stayer programs and found that I had enough points for a four-night stay. So, I made the decision that fate was taking me to the NCAA Tournament, reserved a small rental car, obtained the ok for three more days of annual leave, and headed to California. Here’s a snapshot of the east side of the Franklin Mountains from the car on the way to the El Paso airport.
At the San Jose airport, because of my navigation system request, my small car morphed through a couple of steps (Will a minivan be ok? Oh, we can't find one, will this work?) into this:
Although I landed in San Jose as the NMSU walkthrough was ending at the arena, I stopped by there to see the seats in the media overflow area at the top of the HP Pavilion.
I also visited the alumni reception at the NMSU team hotel.
Saint Louis University and New Mexico State were among the teams most covered by TMM9 writers this season. To get a feeling for their seasons, you may want to read about how the teams got here. Searching the site showed eighteen Saint Louis game recaps: Hopping Cat James Squire recapped five Billiken games against Valparaiso, Butler, Dayton, VCU, and at Butler; Hickory Picket Fences writer Daniel Spewak penned four Saint Louis pieces about games with SIUE, New Mexico, Butler, and Fordham; Donovan Potts from Under a Blood Red Line also recapped the SIUE game; and Hickory Picket Fences captain Ray Curren attended four games, SLU @ Butler, and three A-10 tournament contests with Charlotte, Butler, and VCU. My Ballyfest Destiny teammate Craig Hanford recapped the same four games that Ray did: SLU @ Butler, Charlotte, Butler, and VCU. There were two other pieces written about late SLU coach Rick Majerus, one of which was embedded in Craig Hanford’s Butler-Ball State game recap (Majerus spent two years as head coach at Ball State), and the other in a special appearance by TMM9 Commissioner Kyle Whelliston.
After Kenny Ocker chronicled the first NMSU game of the season at Oregon State, I attended and recapped twenty-two of the Aggies’ games: Southeastern Louisiana, Northern New Mexico, Louisiana-Lafayette, @ UTEP, Southern Mississippi, @ New Mexico, New Mexico, Missouri State, UTSA, Texas State, Utah State, San Jose State, Denver, Idaho, Seattle, UTEP, @ Denver, Louisiana Tech, Texas-Arlington, and WAC tournament contests with Idaho, Texas State, and Texas-Arlington.
These two schools had met once prior in the NCAA Tournament. In both schools first appearance in the tournament, they played on March 21, 1952, in Kansas City’s West Regional. The Billikens won that game, 62-53, losing their next game 61-44 to eventual national champion Kansas. This is Saint Louis’s eighth appearance in the tournament, representing the Missouri Valley, Great Midwest, Conference USA, and Atlantic Ten conferences each twice; the Billikens’ all-time tournament record is 4-8. New Mexico State has now been to the NCAA tournament twenty times, three times representing the Border Conference, five times as an independent, twice from the Missouri Valley, six times as a member of the Big West, and four times from the WAC. The Aggies’ tournament record is 10-22. (Twenty-two losses in twenty appearances? The Aggies are 1-2 in regional third-place games and 1-0 in national third-place games.)
The Aggies and Billikens have played five other games, none since 1975. Each team has won all its home games, three in Saint Louis, two in Las Cruces, mostly during the schools’ two-year overlap as members of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Sam Wasson, who covered a number of games for the 800GP last year, brought his NMSU Bally from Anchorage to San Jose, which I believe brought me the good fortune to relocate from the rafters to a courtside seat for this game. After the national anthem by the Saint Louis band, the game got underway.
The start of the game showed a little nervousness by both teams. After the Aggies’ 7’5” freshman center (and MVP of the WAC tournament) Sim Bhullar won the opening tip, each team turned the ball over twice. NMSU took its first timeout to retain possession of a loose ball after only 87 seconds had been played. Dwayne Evans started the scoring with a driving layup, and as Craig Hanford had predicted, the Aggies did not have a way to stop Evans; he scored ten of the Billikens’ first eighteen points, leading Saint Louis to an 18-8 lead after thirteen minutes. The NMSU zone defense allowed a couple of superhoops, but mostly drives to the hoop during this first stretch. Meanwhile, the tight Saint Louis man-to-man kept the ball mostly away from the lane. The Aggies brought in injured power forward Tyrone Watson for a few minutes to get his steady ball handling on the floor, but it was clear that he was not recovered from his injury enough to make a significant impact. Evans scored six of Saint Louis’s eleven points in the rest of the first period, helping his team to a 29-16 halftime advantage.
The Aggies had two players score twice in the first period; wing Bandja Sy and shooting guard Daniel Mullings had four points each of NMSU’s sixteen. The Aggies only made 26% of their first half attempts, none from outside the three-point arc, and missed their only free throw try. Saint Louis’ Evans led the game with sixteen points, equaling the Aggie total by himself; teammate Cody Ellis got six on two superhoops and Kwamain Mitchell added five. Outrebounding Saint Louis 25-17, the Aggies gave up that advantage with nine turnovers to the Billikens’ five. Saint Louis shot 39% from the floor, including 3-9 on three-pointers; they also made four of five free throws.
Al McGuire, mentor to the late Majerus at Marquette, was a broadcaster after he retired from coaching who brought a lot to the game and to viewers. He used to say that the most important periods of the game were the last five minutes, the first five minutes, and the first five minutes of the second half, pretty much in that order. This second half started with Bandja Sy scoring seven points for the Aggies, only to have Evans score another six and teammate Grandy Glaze add a basket to increase the Billiken advantage to 37-23 at the first media timeout. After that pause, the Aggies made a 10-2 run with Sy and forward Remi Barry each scoring four points, cutting the difference to six.
As good teams always do, Saint Louis responded with a 12-3 run to build their advantage back to fifteen, 49-34. That run ended with two long jumpers by Ellis, one superhoop and another just inside the arc; I noted on my scoresheet, “Dagger!” The Billikens followed that run with another 11-5 stretch building the lead with several fast break layups to 60-39. The Aggies cleared their bench at that point, quickly followed by the Billikens, and the subs played out the final three minutes. The final margin was twenty, Saint Louis 64, New Mexico State 44.
Despite outrebounding the Billikens 42-33, New Mexico State’s 28% shooting (with the assistance of the Saint Louis defenders) and sixteen turnovers left them short in the final score. The Aggies were led by Sy’s seventeen points and Bhullar’s eleven rebounds. Mullings and Barry added six points each; Sy got nine boards, and Renaldo Dixon eight. Dwayne Evans led the game with twenty-four points, and shared the Billiken rebound lead with Ellis; each grabbed six caroms.
The Aggies’ season finishes with a record of 24-11; they return everyone but Sy and Watson for next season, when they will play in what is essentially a new conference: NMSU joins holdovers Idaho and Seattle in welcoming six new schools to the WAC: Great West conference members Utah Valley, Chicago State, and Texas-Pan American, Summit League member Missouri-Kansas City, independent Cal State-Bakersfield, and Grand Canyon University, transitioning from the Division II Pac West Conference.
Saint Louis (28-6) advances to play the winner of the following game between the fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and the twelfth-seeded Oregon Ducks. The Atlantic-10 had a record of 6-0 through the round of 64, with La Salle winning a First Four game, and joining Saint Louis, Butler, VCU, and Temple with opening round wins, showing the conference’s depth and strength.