New Mexico State beat UTEP 55-51 Saturday night for three reasons: Kevin Aronis, the home crowd, and not folding when falling behind by nine points with seven minutes remaining in the contest. Such a comeback was also aided by a strategic move — switching to a zone defense late that helped contribute to the win.
And yes, Aronis was a key player in the comeback, inserted for Bandja Sy and responding with big buckets as well as being part of the team's solid defensive effort.
He hit two 3-pointers in the game's final 4 1/2 minutes — one to answer a UTEP 3-ball late, and keep the Aggies within striking distance — and the go-ahead 2-point jump shot to put NMSU ahead 52-51 with 1:12 remaining in the contest.
Aronis' role has been a curious one throughout the year. His performance the other night brought back memories of a similar game against another regional rival — an early-season contest against New Mexico when, despite having the hot hand, he was replaced late in the action and didn't return until it was too late. If he remained on the floor against the Lobos, the Aggies could have possibly grabbed that win as well. On Saturday, NMSU kept him on the court and rode his shooting stroke to victory.
In other contests, his minutes have been sporadic. In part that's because he plays behind Daniel Mullings, a player who needs to be on the floor and seldom comes out during the course of games. It's also worth noting we do not see NMSU practices (they're closed to the public and media members) making it tough to entirely judge his performance at all times that are Aggie basketball. But we also know, when on the court during game situations, Aronis has looked good often this year on both ends of the floor.
Surely one would hope he's earned the right for an expanded role, although with the soon-to-be return of Tyrone Watson into the playing rotation, a log-jam could ensue. That goes not just for Aronis' position, but also junior power forward Renaldo Dixon, who's been a standout in Watson's absence (we can't seem to recall Dixon playing a poor game over the past month). He's a shot-blocking machine — his 37 rank second on the team, despite ranking seventh on the Aggies in overall minutes played this year (Dixon's played in 502 minutes total. By comparison, Sy ranks third on the Aggies in blocks with 18, while playing a team-high 981 minutes on the year).
Granted, Sy, another senior, has been a tough player to gauge — one who's been solid defensively and rebounding, although just as inconsistent in his offensive game. Will Aronis now go back to his customary spot duty off the bench, while Dixon simply backs up the power forward and center positions if/when Watson's reinserted into the lineup?
Perhaps the Aggies will elect to go with the experienced players. But experience is just that — it doesn't necessarily mean they're better players. That's not saying such seniors shouldn't have roles on the team, because each provide value. It's just that Dixon should be in consideration to retain his starting job, while Aronis has proven during his limited time that he is in fact an asset to the group, and his minutes could go up as well. In short, they've produced when called upon, and are worthy of such recognition.
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