New Mexico State men’s basketball earned a chance to play for its ninth Western Athletic Conference Tournament Championship on Saturday, March 16, after grinding out a thrilling 79-72 semifinal win over UT Rio Grande Valley Friday night at Orleans Arena.
Friday night’s win pushed NM State’s record to 29-4 on the season, breaking the program wins record of 28 that was reached the last two seasons. The win also pushed the Aggie win-streak to 18-consecutive games, which is now one back from Wofford – who holds the nation’s longest win-streak currently with 19.
NM State struck first to start the game on a 3-pointer from Clayton Henry before UTRGV (19-16) answered with a quick 5-0 spurt heading into the first media break at 15:53.Exchange of baskets from both teams began to ensue before a 10-2 run by the Aggies was capped off by a layup from JoJo Zamora for the 22-14 lead with 9:29 left in the first frame.
The Aggies and Vaqueros then went back-and-forth scoring in spurts for the rest of the half. NM State took its first double-digit lead with 1:05 on the clock on a lay-in from AJ Harris before Soloman Hainna hit a buzzer-beater to cut the Aggie lead to 40-32 heading into the locker room.
New Mexico State looked as if it would pull away early on in the second frame, extending its lead to 19 at the 14:03 mark when Shunn Buchanan stole the inbounds pass by UTRGV for an easy lay-up for JoJo Zamora 59-40.
The Vaqueros did not go down without a fight, however, as it answered with a 20-6 run to get within 65-62 of the Aggies. But, this type of pressure was something New Mexico State was well equipped for.
Terrell Brown brought the lead back up to 68-62 with 6:42 left to play with the shot-clock expiring. The next sequence down on defense was marked by a signature charge drawn by Shunn Buchanan. Those two plays could arguably be the biggest moments of the game with Brown curtailing the UTRGV run and Buchanan turning the momentum back in NM State’s favor.
An 8-0 run by the Aggies after that chain of events gave the Aggies a 73-62 cushion at the final media break (3:40). UTRGV continued its relentless push and clawed back to as much as 76-72 on a fastbreak layup from Lesley Varner II with 46 ticks left to play, but it was too little too late as NM State hung on for the 79-72 victory.
This time around, the Aggies were paced by Brown with 19 points on 3-of-5 shooting, including a 6-of-6 night from the line, while Harris added 15 points of his own on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. Henry rounded the double-digit scorers list out with a dozen points on 5-of-9 shooting with four boards.
Eli Chuha had an efficient game, scoring nine points with seven rebounds on 4-of-6 shooting and three assist while Johnny McCants added six points and six boards of his own.
With the win, NM State is now 21-3 all-time when playing at Orleans Arena and 31-5 all-time in WAC Tournament games…NM State looks to go for its ninth WAC Tournament title after advancing to the championship game after Friday night’s win.
BY THE NUMBERS
NM State continues to shoot well away from home, this time shooting 51.9% (28-of-54) from the field Friday night…the Aggies have now also hit double-digit 3-pointers in four-straight games with 11 tonight.
New Mexico State will head to the WAC Tournament Championship game for the 11th time since joining the conference in 2005-06 and will face Grand Canyon on Saturday, March 16, at 8 p.m. (MT) on ESPNU. Kanoa Leahey will have the call on the title game once again with Adrian Branch serving as the analyst.