LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The New Mexico State men's basketball clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and a share of the regular-season title after its 88-79 victory over UT Rio Grande Valley Saturday evening in a raucous Pan American Center.
Saturday's win secured NM State the top-seed in the conference tournament for the second-consecutive year and fourth time in five years.
"I thought the guys were really ready to play," Aggie head coach Chris Jans said. "We came out of the gates great. That's how we envisioned them playing. It was nice to see. In the middle of the first half, I turned to my staff and said, it feels like we should be up more than six because I thought we were playing well. They just kept hanging around. Obviously the second half didn't start off great and then finally we were able to get some separation and close them out."
The Aggies (24-4, 12-1 WAC) got off to one of their better starts of the year offensively, shooting 58.3-percent (7-of-12) at the 11:40 media break to lead the visiting Vaqueros 19-11. As well as the Aggies were shooting, so were the Vaqueros (16-14, 7-6 WAC), who hit 60-percent (12-of-20) of their shots at the 3:24 mark.
However, early foul trouble and 3-point differential in the first half saw NM State hold a 45-32 lead heading into halftime. During that final 3:24 minutes, the Aggie faithful were given a couple opportunities to get boisterous behind a couple jams from Johnny McCants and Trevelin Queen.
UTRGV got out of the gates in the second-half with a 6-0 start to get within 45-38 of the Aggies before NM State responded with an 8-0 run of its own to lead 53-38 at the 15:27 media break.
That run extended to a 19-6 advantage through the 11:23 media break and capped off with back-to-back free-throws from Ivan Aurrecoechea, which gave New Mexico State the 64-46 lead.
With 6:31 on clock, Queen made a great entry pass to Chuha from the far side for his 1,000th career point. The Redlands, Calif., product became the 35th player to join the 1,000 point club and the 17th player to have 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in his Aggie career.
UT Rio Grande Valley inched a little closer after a quick 6-0 spurt but never got close til the final 3:06 minutes. However, it was too little too late as NM State finished the game with the 88-79 victory.
Aurrecoechea, who looked like he returned to form, finished with a game-high 20-points on 6-of-9 shooting with seven rebounds. AJ Harris and JoJo Zamora each finished with 14 points apiece and combined to go 7-of-11 from 3-point range. Chuha rounded out the list of double-digit scorers for NM State with 11 points and five boards on 5-of-6 shooting with three assists.
BY THE NUMBERS
As a team, New Mexico State shot 50.8-percent from the floor on 30-of-59 shooting. NM State also won the battle of the boards 37-25, including 15 offensive rebounds that led to 21 second-chance points, the Aggies also took advantage of its size and UTRGV's foul trouble and outscored the Vaqueros 40-28 in the paint, with 20 dimes on the night, NM State registered 20-plus assists in back-to-back games now and four total on the season.
NM State hits the road for the final time of the regular-season as it heads to the Midwest for a pair of games. First up will be Kansas City, on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 6 p.m. (MT) on ESPN+ followed by a Saturday, March 2, contest at Chicago State.