EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – It’s been such a bizarre season, Monday barely cracks Chris Jans’ top 5 weirdest events of the 2020-21 campaign.
Playing for just the second time in 55 days, as the home team on one of its biggest rival’s court, New Mexico State (3-1) defeated Western New Mexico 70-41 on Monday. Wilfried Likayi paced the Aggies with 20 points and 6 rebounds; UTEP transfer Evan Gilyard had 12 points in his old stomping grounds; and the newest Aggies, Gerald Doakes, had 11 points off the bench.
It was a game that almost didn’t happen, cobbled together over the weekend after NMSU returned to practice on Saturday for the first time since Jan. 4 due to multiple COVID-19 cases. As late as Monday afternoon, the game hadn’t been officially announced as the contract was finalized.
When the Aggies finally got on the court, everything surrounding the build-up was just another day for NMSU.
“It really wasn’t that odd to me. I didn’t think twice about it, never commented to any of the coaches that this is weird or surreal,” Jans said. “It’s been a very surreal and odd season with what we’ve been going through. It felt great to be back on the court and I know it felt good for our kids to be out there too.”
After not playing for 28 days, predictably, New Mexico State got off to a slow start. The Aggies hadn’t been in action since a Dec. 28 loss at CSU-Northridge, and it showed in the first half as Western New Mexico kept pace. The game was tied at 21 with three minutes left until halftime, but NMSU closed on a 10-2 run to take a 31-23 lead into the break.
After halftime, the Aggies put their foot on the gas pedal, outscoring the Mustangs 39-18 in the second half, and leading by as much as 31 points in the final stanza.
“We certainly weren’t in any sort of a rhythm, especially offensively, early. It was a real struggle for us to run good offense,” Jans said. “As the game progressed, I think it was probably more just us being bigger, stronger and faster than them than anything else.”
New Mexico State director of athletics Mario Moccia told KTSM that it was a team effort between NMSU, WNMU and UTEP director of athletics Jim Senter that helped get the game off the ground. NMSU paid UTEP $5,000 to rent the Don Haskins Center for the day.
Due to COVID-19 health restrictions in New Mexico, the Aggies can practice in Las Cruces, but cannot host games in-state. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham eased some regulations in the state last week, allowing the Aggies to return home after over two months of living, practicing and playing in Phoenix, Ariz.
There are scheduling conflicts with the UTEP men’s and women’s basketball teams, so it’s unclear if the Haskins Center is a long-term home for the Aggies this season. However, NMSU remains committed to finding a gym in the Sun City to play its “home” games this season.
“It would be great for us, but certainly the UTEP men and women are playing on the weekends, so I don’t know if that will be possible,” Moccia said. “We’ll certainly have those discussions. If there was any cancellation maybe we could slip in there. We know we have a place in Phoenix for both the men and women right now, but El Paso would make so much more sense. We’re still talking to some area high schools as well.”
Multiple sources have told KTSM throughout the last week that NMSU has spoken with Ysleta Independent School District about the possibility of hosting games at Bel Air High School or Eastwood High School. Both schools have brand new gyms that could easily host NCAA Division I basketball games.
Back on the court, the victory was good for NMSU to simply shake off the rust before what is supposed to be the team’s WAC openers this weekend at Grand Canyon. At 10-3, 4-0 in WAC play, the Lopes have looked much-improved in 2020-21, and could present some issues for an NMSU team that has played just one Division I opponent this season.
“They’re really, really good. I don’t see any weakness in them, Jans said. “We’ll have more than our hands full to try to figure out how to play against those guys.”
Donnie Tillman and Mayan Kiir, two Aggies who did not play against WNMU, are expected to be available against Grand Canyon, sources told KTSM. Jans told the Las Cruces Sun News that WAC preseason Player of the Year Jabari Rice had a setback with his foot injury, and will be out awhile longer. Rice was on the bench on Monday with his foot in a boot, as was Clayton Henry.
NMSU is slated to play at Grand Canyon inside GCU Arena on Friday and Saturday. Both games will tip off at 7 p.m. MT.