GAME NOTES: The two longest-standing members of the Western Athletic Conference are also the last ones remaining in the 31st annual WAC Tournament, as the New Mexico State Aggies clash with the Idaho Vandals in the title game at Orleans Arena.
Considering New Mexico State, the second seed in the event this season, is the two-time defending champion in the WAC, it was expected to at least make it this far for the third straight year and fourth time in the last five campaigns. However, it has not been easy for the Aggies as they barely slipped by Seattle in the quarterfinals on Thursday night (70-68) and had to come back from a sizeable deficit versus Cal State Bakersfield last night, 69-63, in the semifinals.
With the two victories in the tourney this year, NMSU now has a record of 19-4 since joining the WAC.
Unfortunately for the fifth-seeded Vandals, the numbers from the past have not been as favorable in the tournament. In fact, before winning a pair of games this year, Idaho had a record of just 1-8 in the tourney from when the competition was far more superior.
The Vandals began this unexpected run to the final game with a 73-70 win over fourth-seeded UMKC two nights and continued with an upset decision versus top- seeded Utah Valley (74-69) yesterday..
New Mexico State crushed the Vandals in the first meeting of the season in January by a score of 78-54 at home, but in Moscow a month later it was a different story as Idaho captured a 73-67 win which means the all-time series now stands at 24-5 in favor of the Aggies.
The Vandals led almost the entire second half against Utah Valley, ahead by as many as 10 midway through the period, as they managed to hold on for the crucial win last night in Las Vegas. Stephen Madison led the attack with his game-high 25 points, shooting 3-of-4 behind the 3-point line, followed by Mike Scott and Connor Hill with 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Madison, who has led the program in scoring in each of the last three games, putting up at least 25 points every time, checks in with 20.2 ppg and is also first on the unit with 7.8 rpg, not to mention tops with 80 assists and 32 steals, which means he is one of a very rare breed in college basketball these days.
Bakersfield led by nine points at the break against the Aggies on Friday night, but New Mexico State refused to go away quietly. Not only did the Aggies respond in the second half, they did so with a staggering 73.9 percent shooting from the floor as they attacked on the inside against the Roadrunners. Daniel Mullings was responsible for 21 points and DK Eldridge another 17, while big men Tshilidzi Nephawe and Sim Bhullar combined to clear 17 rebounds for the favorite.
Despite shooting only 28.1 percent from behind the 3-point line on the season, Mullings continues to be the top scoring threat for the Aggies with his 16.7 ppg as the squad outscores the competition by almost 10 ppg. Bhullar (10.2 ppg) handles the action in the paint with 7.8 rpg and a team-best 98 blocked shots, the latter being more than all of the opposition combined through 34 games.
In a conference that is barely recognizable when compared to the member schools from just last year, it is only fitting that these are the last two standing. As great as it would be for the Vandals to complete this unlikely run, the truth is New Mexico State is simply too strong on the interior to allow that to happen.
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