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Aggies advance to yet another WAC Tournament championship

NMSU senior Johnny McCants drives to the basket during Friday’s WAC Tournament semifinal win over Utah Valley at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Courtesy NMSU Athletics)

This was not the road the New Mexico State men’s basketball team had been used to taking. 

But the destination is exactly the same as it has been for the past decade. 

Thanks to a wire-to-wire 78-62 semifinal win over No. 2 Utah Valley on Friday night, the third-seeded Aggies advanced to another Saturday night WAC Tournament championship game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

It is NMSU’s ninth-consecutive appearance since 2012 in the league’s title game, which was not played in 2020 due the COVID-19.

Now, standing between NMSU and a seventh NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012 will be the league’s No. 1 seed Grand Canyon University — the program that for years felt it would be the one to end the Aggies’ reign of WAC dominance. The ‘Lopes and first year head coach Bryce Drew took a big step in advancing that narrative in January by beating NMSU twice and going on to claim a share of the WAC regular season championship. 

Not that the game needed more build up, but NMSU senior forward Johnny McCants said after GCU’s semifinal blowout of No. 4 Seattle on Friday evening in the Orleans Arena, as the Aggies (12-7) took the court for warmups for their semifinal game, several GCU players began talking trash to them. 

“We’re not going to back down to them,” said McCants, who scored nine points and six rebounds in the Aggies’ win over UVU. 

NMSU head coach Chris Jans said late Saturday that he wasn’t aware of the pregame exchange with GCU and Aggies players. He added such things rarely matter much once the game starts.

“When we tip the ball, any chatter, anything that happened prior, any scores that happened earlier in the season, won’t mean squat for either team,” Jans said. “It’s going to be a battle. Both teams are going to leave everything on the court. And we know what is at stake. It’s everyone’s dream. It’s every player’s dream. It’s every coach’s dream. 

“We didn’t come down here to make the finals. That’s never (come) out of anyone’s mouth around our program. Those kids didn’t celebrate last night (after NMSU’s quarterfinal win Thursday) or tonight. They were already talking about staying focused for tomorrow.”

Before they could get to Saturday’s title game, though, the Aggies had to first see if they could figure out how to get past the league’s co-champion Wolverines, who split the regular season series with NMSU.

Aggie forward Donnie Tillman took any drama out of that early on Saturday night. 

The senior who played in high school at Las Vegas’ Findlay Prep and transferred to NMSU last summer from UNLV, looked right at home scoring 10 of NMSU’s first 12 points en route to a 12-2 lead by the first media timeout. 

Tillman, who finished with a team-high 23 points including three 3-pointers and a perfect 8-of-8 at the free throw line, had a similar scoring burst in the second half that proved to be the nail in the UVU coffin. 

After trailing by as many as 20 with under nine minutes remaining, the Wolverines chipped away at the NMSU lead and had it down to single digits at 62-53 with under four minutes to play. Tillman drove to the rim and drew a blocking foul on UVU’s Tim Fuller — a call that could have easily been called a charge, as Wolverine guard Jamison Overton emphatically protested was the case. His protest earned a costly technical foul.

After a media timeout, Tillman calmly sank four free throws — two for the foul, two for the technical — and the nine-point lead grew to 13. Forty seven second later, his third 3-pointer in the game made it a 17-point lead at 71-54 and it wasn’t close again.

“He’s playing better,” Jans said of Tillman. “You see it every game. That’s kind of what we envisioned when we got him in the summer — in the fall. Just that in-and-out guy that can score around the basket, does a little bit of everything — shoot it, drive it, post up, he’s a good offensive rebounder… He’s been very, very focused, the last few weeks of the season.”

Jabari Rice added 13 points for NMSU and Kalen Williams scored eight, leading a 21-7 bench scoring advantage for the Aggies. 

UVU’s WAC Player of the Year center Fardaws Aimaq was held scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting (he did grab 13 boards) and NMSU’s defense as a whole held the Wolverines to just 29.8% shooting in the game (17-of-57). 

Guard Trey Woodbury — another Las Vegas native who was also a transfer from UNLV two seasons ago — scored 34 points, but every one of them was hard-earned by the physical Aggies defense. Woodbury shot 8-of-19 from the field, drew 10 fouls and hit 15-of-16 free throws. 

Despite Woodbury’s best efforts, the Aggies — a team lacking the same amount of games played as many of their counterparts — simply found a way to make a tough semifinal opponent look thoroughly outmatched down the stretch. 

“We’re playing Aggie basketball. Playing Aggie basketball,” Jans said. “You know, the next 24 hours, all I’m thinking about is our coaches got to be on it. We’ve got to get the right plan together. We’ve got to put them in the right spots because they’ll execute. And they’ll play with their hair on fire and some spittle coming out of their mouth and they’re going to get after it — play with that passion some of our teams have been known for. They’re doing it. And they’re going to do it tomorrow. …

“And I’m excited to see it, you know? It feels comfortable out there. It feels familiar. And I’m happy that they’re getting to feel it as well. Our confidence is sky high right now.”

GAME TIME: Saturday’s WAC Tournament championship game against Grand Canyon is at 8 p.m. MT (tips off at 7 p.m. local time in Las Vegas) and will be broadcast on ESPNU. 

BOX SCORE: New Mexico State 78, Utah Valley 62

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