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Finally with fans, Aggies dominate in WAC Tournament opener

New Mexico State University forward Donnie Tillman grabs a rebound in Thursday’s win over UT-Rio Grande Valley in the WAC Tournament quarterfinals at the Orleans in Las Vegas, Nev. (Courtesy NMSU Athletics)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It wasn’t feedback from his headset.

It wasn’t the Orleans Arena music blaring overhead that did it.

As New Mexico State University men’s basketball coach Chris Jans was conducting a postgame interview — socially distanced, of course — with WAC Broadcasting Coordinator Rachel Vigil after Thursday’s dominating 77-61 conference semifinal win over UT-Rio Grande Valley, the fourth-year Aggies coach had an unusual noise filling his ears.

It was yelling from Aggie basketball fans — 125 of them who quickly gobbled up the team’s entire allowed allotment for Thursday, to be exact. It marked the first time in the 2020-21 season that NMSU fans were at an Aggies game and the ones who did get in the game seemed determined to make up for a season of empty arena basketball.

“I had a postgame radio interview with the WAC right next to them (fans were allowed to sit on just one side of the arena), which is kind of cool,” Jans said. “… I didn’t know that’s where it would be staged, but you know I could hear them. I could hear them, I could see them.

“You know, we certainly weren’t trying to celebrate after a first round victory. There’s nothing like that, but it was nice to just acknowledge them and hear them and I said, prior to the game that for us, it was going to be a big deal.”

Usually Aggie fans fill the conference tournament dubbed “WACVegas” as NMSU has dominated the event for years. But in a season dominated by COVID-19 narratives and restrictions that forced the team to practice (most of the season) and play (the entire season) outside of its home state, the crowd noise on Thursday did seem to offer a hint of normalcy again for an Aggies team trying to play its way into the NCAA Tournament.

Certainly the product on the court looked like typical WAC Tournament basketball for the Aggies.

NMSU (11-7), the No. 3 seed, jumped all over the No. 6 Vaqueros (9-10) — dominating the glass (38-24) and erasing any doubts about the outcome early. The Aggies jumped out to a 26-10 lead by the 8:54 mark of the first half — an opening act that included six players getting in the scoring column within the first nine minutes of the game.

Wilfried Likayi came off the bench to score a game-high 15 points and hit three of NMSU’s 12 3-pointers (on just 24 attempts).

Donnie Tillman added 12 points and five boards and Jabari Rice had nine points, nine rebounds. But balance, and resting starters, was the goal and the result that mattered for Jans.

Fourteen Aggies got in the game and 11 scored. No starter played more than Evan Gilyard’s 20 minutes, 14 seconds. And NMSU led by as many as 25 points in the second half before being able to coast down the stretch.

“Certainly the last 8-9 minutes wasn’t aesthetically pleasing basketball, but we played well enough to put ourselves in position to do that,” Jans said. “So, being in the position we’re in having to play the extra game, we couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in terms of getting some court time, playing, getting the win, but not having to extend ourselves at all.”

NMSU is in the unusual spot of being a three seed after having won the WAC Tournament seven times in eight seasons between 2012 and 2019 (last year’s tournament was cancelled).

SO, ABOUT THOSE WOLVERINES: The Aggies now face No. 2 Utah Valley in Friday’s semifinal that tips off at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. local time in Las Vegas). The teams split a pair of regular season games played at El Paso’s Eastwood High School less than a month ago (Feb. 19 and 20).

UVU’s sophomore center Fardaws Aimaq, named this week the WAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, helped the Wolverines control the boards in the NMSU series. Aimaq scored just eight points in the two games, but grabbed 32 rebounds and UVU out-rebounds NMSU in both games.

In fact, NMSU was held to offensive rebounding rates of 25.6% and 23.5% in those games — the second and third lowest of the season (the worst was 20.0% in a Dec. 28 loss to Cal. State Northridge).

“You know, we’re gonna have to get our bodies in there and wedge them out and, you know, old school check them out,” Jans said about how to combat the size advantage UVU has. “… And just try to be relentless on the backwards because they are bigger than us but, you know, I think we’ve proven over time that we’ve been able to overcome any height disadvantage in a lot of situations and a lot of games.

“We’ve never been a big team. It’s not something I’m real concerned or worried about. It’s more just us doing our job and having the right mentality and I think we could do fine on the backboards.”

FRIDAY DOUBLE FEATURE: There will be a double-dose of Aggies semifinal basketball on Friday as NMSU women’s team, the No. 4 seed in the six-team tournament, takes on No. 1 Cal-Baptist at noon (11 a.m. local in Las Vegas).

Wednesday, the Aggie women were a 56-46 winner over No. 5 Seattle.

FAMILIAR FACE: One of the referees on Thursday’s three-man officiating crew was Wilson Holland, more familiar to those in New Mexico as the Athletic Director of Los Lunas Schools.

Holland is a veteran of the Division I officiating game out west at this point and Thursday was his 17th game of this season — third involving the Aggies (he also called the March 6 game at Dixie State in St. George, Utah, and NMSU’s Jan. 25 game against Division II Western New Mexico in a game played at UTEP’s Don Haskins Center).

BOX SCORE: New Mexico State 77, UTRGV 61

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