The New Mexico State Aggie basketball team earned its way to the NCAA Tournament.
They didn’t beat substandard competition in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, to win an NCAA bid outright. No, they beat a team that had swept them during the regular season, the Nevada Wolf Pack. Not only that, they beat the Wolf Pack on Nevada’s home court, winning the semifinal matchup between the two teams in Reno.
They did it under adverse conditions — the game was an all-out war, and boiled down to the final possession. NMSU was winning throughout the second half, before a Marko Cukic layin gave Nevada a one-point lead with 3:01 remaining in the contest.
Some teams would have folded. Instead, the Aggies went blow-for-blow with Nevada down the stretch, as the lead changed hands five times in the final three minutes. Jahmar Young’s 10-foot floater from the right side gave NMSU an 80-79 lead with 3 seconds remaining, and put the Aggies up for good.
Still, not everyone believed NMSU would beat Utah State in the WAC finals. Not with the UtAgs riding a 17-game winning streak, after beating NMSU by 18 to close the regular season in Logan, Utah.
Again, the game was a battle. And, again, the Aggies found a way to come out on top despite being underdogs and underestimated. No lead was larger than five, when Hamidu Rahman threw down a dunk with 6:30 remaining in the contest to tie the score at 53. The Aggies would go on to outscore Utah State 16-10 the rest of the way, acting as the aggressors instead of the reactors.
To me, the most telling aspect of the Aggies’ turnaround during the 2009-10 season was the team’s ability to win close games.
NMSU was 12-0 in games decided by six points or less in 2010, while seven of the Aggies’ 14 WAC wins were decided by three points or less. They opened conference play with a 55-52 win over Utah State at home. Young hit a buzzer-beater at Hawaii for a 71-69 victory in late January. Hernst Laroche’s shot as the horn sounded knocked off Louisiana Tech 70-68 in early February. It seemed like every time the Aggies found themselves in a nail-biter this year, they would find a way to come out on top. That confidence, that belief in late-game situations, is a big reason why the team is going to play Michigan State on Friday evening, instead of staying home watching the tournament.
At the outset of the year, expectations were high for the Aggies. Many felt like they would compete for a WAC championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Jonathan Gibson and Jahmar Young formed an explosive one-two scoring punch in the backcourt. The point guard Laroche and center Rahman looked to build off of solid freshman campaigns where they held their own at challenging positions. Wendell McKines was, well, Wendell McKines, a 6-foot-6 small forward who played with a pit bull’s mentallity. And sophomore Troy Gillenwater’s skill set was obvious, a 6-foot-8 forward who could take his defender to the basket off the low block, and step out and operate 18 to 22 feet away from the goal.
The team got off to a dreadfully slow start, getting swept by one of their rivals, the University of New Mexico, and getting blown out at home to their other chief foe, UTEP. On top of that, the roster was in disarray, with McKines and Gillenwater out of action because of poor academic standing and the team, at least superficially, playing with a lack of urgency or cohesion.
Fans were upset and many wondered what direction the Aggies were headed in. Were they a tournament team? Were they even a competitive WAC team? And how did it come to this, merely two-plus seasons removed from their last NCAA berth in 2007.
But now? Two months later, you gotta give it up to them. Making the tournament this season, while it should be the standard at NMSU, was a stunning turnaround considering where the team was in mid-December — holding a 3-7 record following a 100-68 loss at UCLA. Since that game, the Aggies have won 19 of 24 games, and find themselves in the one postseason tournament that matters.
A great turnaround indeed. And a well-earned one at that.