LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The Aggies reign over the WAC is over.
It was bound to happen. And the way this season played out for the New Mexico State men’s basketball team — no games played in their home state and multiple positive COVID-19 cases on the roster leading to extended pauses in the season — you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would be entirely surprised the program will be missing the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since 2012.
But none of that numbed the sting of seeing and hearing another team celebrating on the Orleans Arena court on Saturday night as the No. 3-seeded Aggies walked back to their locker room — heads dropped, tears falling — after a 74-56 loss to top-seeded Grand Canyon University in the WAC Tournament championship game.
The Western Athletic Conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament belongs to GCU — the program long expected to finally give NMSU a consistent challenger in the league the Aggies have owned for the better part of the past decade.
“It’s pretty tough,” said Chris Jans, the fourth-year Aggies coach who lost for the first time in the WAC Tournament. “I just told them how proud I was. We’ve been through a lot. I told them to keep their heads up. It wasn’t a lack of effort. (Grand Canyon) played better. Coached better. Players executed better. But nobody but us knows what we’ve been through. We weren’t a really good basketball team for a while. But they stuck together, and they scratched and clawed and fought. And in the end, we were a pretty good basketball team.”
Saturday was anything but similar to the first two rounds of familiar Aggies (12-8) dominance in the WAC Tournament. NMSU’s largest deficit through the first two rounds was when it trailed 2-0 against UT-Rio Grande Valley in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
On Saturday, the ‘Lopes (17-6) used a 12-0 run to take a 19-9 lead with 9:03 left in the first half. The lead grew to 15 by halftime and 19 by game’s end.
Guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. had a game-high 19 points and hit three of GCU’s eight 3-pointers en route to being named WAC Tournament MVP.
GCU out-rebounded NMSU 39-25 and hit 14 free throws to just seven for NMSU, though most of those came in the final two minutes as they iced the game.
Evan Gilyard hit back-to-back 3-pointers with 4:58 left in the game to cut the GCU lead to 13 at 63-50, but that was hardly the type of rally that put much of a scare into GCU.
Gilyard led NMSU with 18 points. Jabari Rice scored 12 and Donnie Tillman, who made the all-tourney team, had 11.
Yes, the outcome Saturday hurt, because NMSU believed they had a chance in a season maybe nobody thought they’d get there.
“There was like a heavy fog and a lot of days that they were hovering around us when we’re in Arizona (living and practicing at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa until practices were allowed again in New Mexico in January),” Jans said. “… We’re a no excuse type program, but that’s reality. … They kept fighting. Kept competing. They kept trying to get better. And in the end we ended up being a pretty good team.”
ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM: The rest of the all-tournament team included GCU big man Asbjørn Midtgaard, NMSU’s Tillman, Seattle University guard Darrion Trammell and Utah Valley guard Trey Woodbury.
Three of the five on the all-tournament team were transfers from larger conferences who found a home a flourished this season — and this week in particular — in the WAC, including two who previously played locally at UNLV in Tillman and Woodbury.
Grand Canyon 74, New Mexico St. 56
NEW MEXICO ST. (2-1)
McCants 1-9 2-2 4, Tillman 4-10 1-2 11, Gilyard 6-15 2-2 18, Henry 2-5 0-0 5, Rice 5-12 0-0 12, Roberts 2-5 0-0 4, Lakayi 0-1 0-0 0, McNair 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Doakes 0-1 2-3 2, Rewalt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-58 7-9 56.
GRAND CANYON (2-0)
Frayer 3-10 2-5 9, Lever 3-9 1-1 7, Midtgaard 5-8 2-2 12, Blacksher 7-10 2-2 19, Dixon 2-6 5-6 10, McGlothan 2-3 0-0 4, McMillian 3-5 0-0 9, Miller-Moore 0-2 2-2 2, Lloyd 0-0 0-0 0, Okpoh 1-1 0-0 2, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Zdor 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-54 14-18 74.
Halftime—Grand Canyon 41-26. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico St. 9-33 (Gilyard 4-11, Tillman 2-4, Rice 2-6, Henry 1-4, Lakayi 0-1, Roberts 0-1, McCants 0-6), Grand Canyon 8-21 (Blacksher 3-4, McMillian 3-4, Dixon 1-2, Frayer 1-7, Lever 0-4). Rebounds—New Mexico St. 21 (McCants, Tillman 5), Grand Canyon 36 (Midtgaard, Blacksher 7). Assists—New Mexico St. 6 (Gilyard 2), Grand Canyon 11 (Lever 3). Total Fouls—New Mexico St. 17, Grand Canyon 13.