Wow. I was at Aggies-UTEP basketball Sunday night, front row. Wow.
It was a great game and I was fired up about it for about 2 hours after I left the arena. I just wanted to see NMSU go out and compete - something they have failed to do against their rivals - heck really against anybody this year. It's not harsh. Those are facts ladies and gents. I just wanted to see them battle, not necessarily come out on top. Why just battle? Partly because I didn't think they could win. Well, they did just that.
I knew the first thing people would be saying following this one. It was obvious: The team won with Mick Durham at the controls. Hey, I can't hate. That's a legitimate statement and one that must be considered when talking about this basketball game. The truth is that Marvin Menzies has been under considerable heat lately because people think he has shortcomings as a manager, on and off the floor. Again, not harsh, just facts. That's what fans and media have been talking about since the opening of the season. And lets be honest, the team got pounded by the Miners in Las Cruces earlier this month. It was quite a turnaround, to get beaten soundly to actually doing the beating. It can't be overlooked. I won't say the team won Sunday night because of Menzies' absence. But hey, right now, it's hard to argue the other way around, I'll say that too. I definitely won't say the team lost despite Menzies' absence. That would be just as naive. They better pick it up when he returns to the bench. If not, it adds validity to those concerns, possibly even adds truth.
NMSU ran just about everything through Jahmar Young in the second half and he delivered. Jahmar is a great player, people. This kid has range, can get into the paint and is an underrated facilitator for his teammates. I was very impressed by him. This will be another chip for the Menzies' bashers. This team played with poise in the second half when they could have unraveled. They ran a controlled offense without turning the ball over, with Young as the centerpiece. That's what you do with your best player on the court. UTEP was forced a number of times to switch their big men on him because of the pick and roll game and he feasted on the mismatches. He plays with an assassins touch and I really believe NMSU has a building block in him. I even think he's been underutilized to this point. Anyone can score 24 in a blowout loss. But he did it in the pressure of a big-time college basketball game - at least as far as this region's concerned. Going forward, he needs to be the centerpiece of the team's offensive attack. Not 1A or 1B. No, he needs to be No. 1. I believe that.
Gordo Castillo and Hernst Laroche stepped up to make some huge 3-pointers with the game in the balance. Gordo drained two straight that kept the Aggies in the game and shifted momentum while Hernst buried one that was just as important down the stretch. I gotta give them credit, particularly Hernst who isn't known as a scorer. But he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger when it mattered. Gordo, that's what he's there for. To straight-up stroke the rock. He did what he's supposed to do. Those were big buckets for both players.
Jonathan Gibson kept the Aggies in the game early but went ice cold midway through the first half and from there on out. He finished 2-of-11 from the field and made some mind-numbing plays down the stretch. Different situations call for different decisions on the court. Jonathan will try the same cross-court rifle pass on the break during a 4-2 game two minutes in as he will up 71-70 in the closing minute of action. Risky. But with his athleticism and want-to in the clutch moments, it's hard not to get him out on the court. He did go 9-of-10 from the line. And he's one of the few Aggies who can create offense off the dribble, get his own shot and set up his teammates. As a coach, he's tough player to juggle I'd imagine. A heart attack waiting to happen as well.
The thing that impressed me the most about the Aggies Sunday night: Defense and rebounding. The team has been bad defensively early in the season but battled, scratched and clawed on that end of the court Sunday. Giving up 80 points to UTEP on the road. Aggie fans will take it. And to tie with the Miners 34-34 on the boards, despite being undersized? Again, that's a victory for the Aggies. Rahman deserves credit for banging downlow, the only Aggie who could truly go toe-to-toe with UTEP's size in the post and underneath. He played strong enough defense and got boards. It was a workman-like effort from him.
It also seemed like the Aggies came up with every loose ball. That won them the game, along with shooting 28-of-32 from the line. 12-12 in turnovers? The Aggies did the little things right on Sunday - the intangibles. These are things that have been missing this year. They got it going against UTEP.
Alas, unless Young can play at that level every game, this team will be what they've been all year: an underwhelming group. Menzies still has to answer the same questions at this point, because he didn't lead them to the victory. The ultimate litmus test though? Troy and Wendell's eligibility. From what I saw tonight, if both of those guys are around and if there is quality coaching, this team can compete. So far, those have proven to be pretty big ifs early in the year.
That's what I learned tonight. And that I love basketball. I already knew that though. Whatever.....