Let the march to March begin.
During the past three weeks, the New Mexico State Aggies were a little out of step. But after Tuesday night’s gritty 67-61 win against New Mexico in the Pit, the cadence is back.
And the Aggies will soon be high-stepping it into a Western Athletic Conference that they should, well, march through with ease.
“In the long run, this (stretch) was really good for us,” NMSU junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe said of the Aggies’ four-game road trip and fifth road game since Nov. 30. “We lost a few games on the road, but we stayed together no matter what. And I feel like we are more close than probably other teams. I’ve never seen anybody get mad at each other. We hold each other accountable all the time, and this helped us to be a really tough team. It was good for us mentally.
“I think we can compete against any team, and this road trip – and to win this game – kind of prepared us to go and dominate the WAC.”
The Aggies are whopping favorites to do just that, which meant needing a rugged nonconference slate to get them ready for an NCAA Tournament berth, should one come as expected.
But that schedule – including road games at No. 1 Arizona, 21st-ranked Gonzaga and Colorado State, and home against New Mexico – saddled the Aggies (9-5) with a four-game losing streak with two road games remaining.
It’s now a two-game winning streak.
NMSU took an 81-63 overtime win at Drake on Saturday, then grabbed its second Pit win against UNM (7-3) in three seasons.
“This was obviously a great win for our program,” NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. “Putting this series of rivalry games (NMSU swept two from UTEP) and UNM to bed is good for us. That’s a separate season altogether, and getting three out of four is a big accomplishment for our players and our staff.
“It’s just not another win. It’s a big win.”
For a while, it looked like it could be a huge win.
The Aggies, 79-70 losers at home to the Lobos on Dec. 4, came out firing outside and pounding the paint in a game they never trailed.
Nephawe scored seven points in a 14-2 game-opening run and after UNM’s Kendall Williams hit three free throws, the Aggies got a trio of 3-pointers to race to a jaw-dropping 23-5 lead just six minutes into the contest.
The cushion dipped under double digits briefly – at 32-24 – before the Aggies took a 39-26 lead at the break and quickly upped it to 43-28 in the second half.
But hey, it’s the Pit. And these are the rival Lobos.
The run was going to come, right?
It did – incredibly slowly – but it came. Yet the Aggies held on for a attention-grabbing, confidence-building victory.
“I think it was evident tonight, that the crowds that we’ve seen on the road helped us in this type of environment,” Menzies said of the sold-out crowd of 15,411. “We kept the crowd at bay for quite some time. But when they stepped up, they stepped up. We couldn’t get calls in from the bench. We couldn’t get organized. But thank God we had some players make some plays.”
The very biggest coming with 31 seconds left. The Lobos trimmed a 61-54 deficit – with less than a minute left – to 61-59 and headed down court on a fast break after a NMSU turnover.
But just when it appeared Lobo freshman Cullen Neal would tie the game on a breakaway layup, the Aggies’ Renaldo Dixon flew past his own man for a tremendous swat and State’s K.C. Ross-Miller chased down the ball.
Ross-Miller hit both ends of three one-and-ones in the final 30 seconds to wrap up a game in which the Lobos failed to make a 3-pointer for the first time since January 1991.
The Aggies, who have nonconference home games against Northern New Mexico and South Alabama before opening WAC play at Grand Canyon on Jan. 4, got 16 points from Ross-Miller and 14 points and six rebounds from Nephawe. Junior star guard Daniel Mullings had 14 points but was just 4-of-14 from the floor, while 7-foot-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar had seven points, six rebounds, five blocks and an emphatic follow-slam over UNM 7-footer Alex Kirk for a three-point play with 3:29 left to make it 59-52.
But Bhullar also had two of his five turnovers in the final minute to give the Lobos life.
“It was a direct result of the crowd,” Menzies said. “…But he’ll learn. We’ll learn from it.”
And march on – with a heckuva bounce to their steps.