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Aggies hope they have saved their best for last

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — New Mexico State’s dominant run as the three-time regular season champion of WAC basketball ended with prejudice this season. But the Aggie men have saved their best for last, seemingly, just in time for the postseason.

The No. 3-seeded Aggies (10-7, 7-6 WAC) take on the No. 6-seeded UT Rio Grande Valley (9-9, 2-5) Thursday at 9 p.m. MT in a quarterfinal of the six-team Western Athletic Conference tournament at The Orleans Arena.

The Aggie men have experienced the same trials as has New Mexico in terms of the all-road schedule, necessitated by the state’s public health order. And COVID made an impact — eight games canceled (including two vs. a Chicago State team that opted out during the season) and two more postponed. NMSU started slowly and needed the two-game road sweep of Dixie State last week just to creep over .500 in league play.

Donnie Tillman led the way for New Mexico State last week at Dixie State, averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in the two wins last weekend, and Las Cruces native Johnny McCants had a dominant 10-offensive rebound game in the opener.

McCants was named honorable mention All-WAC, Redshirt junior guard Jabari Rice earned an All-WAC second-team selection and Clayton Henry was named All-WAC defense.

Meanwhile, winning five of the last six offered hope for optimism, said coach Chris Jans.

“I wish we had another seven to 10 days, because they’re getting better,” said Jans on Monday, regarding his team. “Some years I’m dying to get to the finish line because we are playing well. This year I wish we had a little more time but we don’t. The calendar says it’s time to go to Vegas.”

New Mexico State historically has been very comfortable in that city. The Aggies have won seven of the last eight tournaments under coaches Marvin Menzies, Paul Weir and now Jans. Last year’s event didn’t tip off due to COVID.

Since joining the league, the Aggies never have failed to reach the tournament semifinals and have won its last nine tourney games.

The Aggies won their only regular-season matchup against the Vaqueros on March 2 69-51.

UTRGV enters the tournament on a five-game losing streak since losing 6-foot-8 junior Sean Rhea to the transfer portal on the untimely date of Feb. 25 taking his team-high 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds with him.

RADIO: Just in time for the WAC tourney, Albuquerque Aggie fans can listen to their team on the radio. KQTM-FM 101.7, the ESPN-affiliated sports talk station, has picked up the Aggies for the balance of the season, whatever that might be. NMSU had said that 1150 AM would be its Albuquerque presence, but 1150 AM didn’t follow through.

“With Albuquerque having the largest amount of Aggie alumni in the nation outside of Doña Ana county, it is critical we have a presence on air in the largest city in our state,” NMSU athletic director Mario Moccial said in a statement.

THURSDAY: WAC men’s tournament, Las Vegas, Nevada (Orleans Arena): No. 3 New Mexico State vs. No. 6 UT Rio Grande Valley, 9 p.m., ESPN+ streaming, 101.7 FM in Albuquerque