A middle of the week road showdown, between a rocky New Mexico State Aggies squad and a St. Mary’s program on the rise was just the part of the WAC’s entertaining Wednesday night. Greg Heiar’s group headed West to California, for a potential resume boosting upset. Instead, they were met by longtime Gaels coach Randy Bennet and a well-oiled machine.
Both mid-major programs are heralded by fans and media alike across the country. So, Wednesday’s WAC versus WCC matchup of their top tier teams had plenty of eyes watching.
A strong second-half performance by New Mexico State was just not enough to over take their hosts. Who in turn were hot handed and found tremendous success from beyond the arc. St. Mary’s was able to fend off the Aggies, for a 81-68 win at University Credit Union Pavilion.
A Gaels Offensive Bombardment
St. Mary’s is showing why they are continuously one of the more well respected mid-majors on the West Coast year in and year out. Another Gaels squad teeming with dangerous guards, offensively impactful bigs and a “touch” of Aussie influence (Australian players accounted for 40% of St. Mary’s 81 points) protected their home court on Wednesday.
The Gaels shot the lights out inside the University Credit Union Pavilion on Wednesday. With 9 players contributing points and four starters in double-digits. The Gaels shot a whopping 48.3 percent from the field as well as an impressive 41.9 percent from deep.
The impressive part you may ask? Nearly half (48.1%) of the teams 81 points scored against the Aggies were from 3-point range. It wasn’t for a lack of trying or a lack of dangerous New Mexico State defenders on the perimeter either.
A Honorable Aggie Resurgence
St. Mary’s did have 12 turnovers on offense on the night, seven of which Aggie junior guards Deshawndre Washington (4 steals) and DaJuan Gordon (3 steals) were directly responsible for. But, a lackluster consistent perimeter defense proved damning. Also just like the Aggies, the Gaels were put on the free throw line plenty. With a whopping 37 fouls called on the night and 36 of a grand total 46 free throw attempts taken in the second half, it was a physical game.
A game that Heiar’s team adapted to and began to really challenge St. Mary’s for in the second half. New Mexico State held its own, only being outscored 45-42 after a halftime adjustment. But simply put, a poor first-half performance (34.6% FG% on 9-26 attempts) and almost non-existent effective ball movement (1 assist on 21 made field goals all night) sent the visiting team home winless. That and also being outrebounded 44-25 while allowing 12 offensive boards with plenty of second chance opportunities (15 points to be precise).
Still, a valiant effort by New Mexico State. Especially against a Gaels team who takes fewer field goal attempts than a third of the country. Saint Mary’s also makes more than half of the attempts. Aggie fans will be upset at the loss. But, there isn’t much more you can ask for. Like I mentioned, the Gaels are a well-oiled machine. Also, you don’t call it a true road test for no particular reason, right?
The Silver Lining
The silver lining you may ask? Sure, why not. A 2-2 posted record thus far after the cancelled Rio Grande Rivalry home game is hard to analyze isn’t it. Fans in Las Cruces have grown accustom to boasting one of the more successful mid-major programs in the country over the last decade. A program now rocked with external influence and on the national sporting news radar is struggling to find consistent footing before the holiday break.
But the season is not a lost cause; far from it honestly.
A 13-point road loss to one of only three programs to beat the No. 1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs last season is nothing to scoff at. Yes, St. Mary’s fell in a hard fought matchup to the Aggies northern foes last month. But they also upset a top-25 ranked San Diego State Aztecs squad just last Saturday.
So remember, college hoops is an unpredictable business. That is why we love it. The Aggies also made it tough on the Gaels at times, too. Using their strength and athleticism to attack the rim, making their way to the charity stripe plenty. New Mexico State attempted 29 free throws, the most the Gaels have allowed in a regulation game since 2018.
This loss can only be looked at as a learning experience. A true road test to better bond and prime a team still talented enough to cause angst in opponents’ fans and coaching staffs come conference play. New Mexico State is still a powerhouse in the WAC. Though, their legacy may only be cemented with a conference championship before next summer.
PLAYER HIGHLIGHT: Jr. G Deshawndre Washington
Washington continues to display his talent and ability to dominate a game, no matter the opponent. The 6-7 swiss army knife led all scorers with 20 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and 66 percent from beyond the arc. Also contributing 3 rebounds and 4 steals while defending a talented Gaels backcourt.
The outcome of Wednesday’s matchup may not have been favorable. But positive performances and reps from New Mexico State’s leading scorer, rebounder and assist man should pay off big during conference play.
MY GOODNESS @Nogood_24 ?#AggieUp | #SCTop10 pic.twitter.com/hOkocG70vY
— NM State MBB (@NMStateMBB) December 15, 2022
The Aggies head home to regroup against NAIA in-state foe Northern New Mexico. It’s a much needed reset after what can be viewed as a very confusing December display. A lopsided win over a non-DI opponent may be just what the program needs before the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational next week. A sweep of the tournament in the Sun City appears necessary to prime the program for another grueling conference slate in the WAC.
New Mexico State’s next homestand inside the Pan Am Center can be streamed on ESPN+ Sunday December 18th at 4:00 PM MT.
Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.