In a rare midweek contest, New Mexico State got the best of UTRGV in a makeup game from January at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso on Tuesday.
If you were tuned into this rare WAC action on a Tuesday morning, you were treated to a scrappy contest on both sides. This rescheduled matchup originally scheduled to take place back in January. But with the flexibility and determination to play on both sides. Were able to bring fans WAC hoops early in the week.
“Obviously happy we won,” New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans said. “You know, odd game with the current schedule we’re in with the Friday/Saturday series. Certainly an odd start. We decided a few weeks ago that if we could make this happen we were gonna.”
Jans should be happy. The Vaqueros are a team that can really test his squad’s ability to come in with assignments and stick to them.
Playing host to UTRGV in El Paso, TX at the Don Haskins Center was right up the Aggies alley on Tuesday morning. It was the last game at “home” for transplanted hoops program before gearing up for a trip to Dixie State on Friday.
Though this game was never set to be played until last week, it didn’t mean both sides weren’t eager for a win. It definitely wasn’t pretty, but definitely entertaining.
OUT-REBOUNDING THE BEST REBOUNDERS
The Vaqueros came into Tuesday as the conference leader in not only rebounds per game but also offensive rebounds per game. Interim head coach Jai Steadman’s squad is undersized but out-hustle their opponents to get the job done.
Both squads struggled to knock down shots almost immediately. UTRGV’s Marek Nelson knocked down a jumper just a minute after tip off. However, another basket was hard to come by for some time. A Johnny McCants put-back slam around the 15:52 mark broke the ice. After that it was a series of exchanged bricks and buckets. Eventually UTRGV got out to their biggest lead of the game come at the 11:25 mark, up 11-5.
After that a 17-4 run that began with a Jabari Rice 3-pointer at the 6:11 mark, gave the Aggies some breathing room. It was a dreadful first-half shooting performance, which saw the home squad shoot 32.4% from the floor. New Mexico State even attempted a whopping 37 first-half shots, not to mention 25.0% from deep (5-20). However, the Aggies went into the locker room up 31-19 at halftime.
The second-half bore similar efforts and similar results. The Aggies took less shots, but knocked down more of them. New Mexico State shot 45.1% from the field and 3-9 (33.3%) from deep, instead focusing on their defensive efforts.
UTRGV, in turn, dug in on the defensive side of the ball in the last 20 minutes as they continued to struggle knocking down shots. The Aggies were able to fend off a Vaquero surge in the second half. Connor Raines sparked UTRGV off the bench helping the Vaqueros cut the deficit to 10 points with seven minutes to play.
And that’s when Clayton Henry decided to take over. The senior guard went scoreless in the first-half, but dropped all of his 15 points in the last 14 minutes of play. Henry had a 9-point run of his own, giving his team a 14-point lead (62-48) with a little over 3 minutes left to go before receiving some help from a pair of Evan Gilyard II free throws.
“I love Clayton Henry, he is all about the right stuff. He is a pillar of our program, he is our best defender, he is one of the best offensive rebounders from the wing position in the league.” said Jans of Henry “I know he works at his game, I knew he would eventually make shots. I got to think this is just going to take a lot of pressure off of him going forward I’m happy for all of us. He’s got to be able to make shots, he and Jabari both.”
Although Henry may have led the second-half charge to the finish for New Mexico State, it was junior guard who Jabari Rice led the Aggies in scoring. Rice had 16 points and a team-high 8 rebounds. Not bad for the 6-4, 180-pound guard who also chipped in four assists, two steals and two blocks.
The big win for coach Jans and his staff was the hustle shown by his team when crashing the boards. The Aggies out-rebounded the conference’s best rebounding team 44-32. This includes their tenacity when pursing offensive rebounds. New Mexico State chased down 19 second chance opportunities compared to 22 defensive rebounds won by UTRGV.
Although this squad never quite found their shooting stroke, it didn’t matter. They hustled on both sides of the basketball while playing some of their best defense all season to pull out the win.
“It was better, some of the older guys, veterans are stepping up behind the scenes,” Jans said. “Trying to get everyone to understand besides our coaching staff. You know we’re in March now. The calendar has turned. It’s March. Everybody’s playing hard. How are you going to separate yourself now?”
After a tumultuous season thus far, the Aggies would indeed like to begin a winning streak this month. The program could definitely use a run to the conference tournament title game to offset the rough season they’ve had so far.
“That’s kind of theme right now going forward, is to try and get everybody on the same page and you know make a run at this thing down the stretch.”
JUST COULDN’T FIND A RYTHM
For UTRGV, aside from getting out hustled on the boards, they just couldn’t knock down shots. Only one player managed to break double-digit scoring. That was starting post Jeff Otchere. What’s worse for UTRVG is Otchere has the lowest scoring average of all the Vaquero starters all season (just 4.4 PPG). However, this time around Otchere had a season-high and team-high 11-points on a perfect shooting night. Otchere also had 5 rebounds and 3 blocks, but went 3-8 from the free-throw line.
His teammates never got it going, shooting a combined 14-45 from the field. That’s just 31.1% in an 18-point loss on the road. Leading scorer Quinton Johnson II was held scoreless and limited to just 2 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 turnovers. Senior floor general and lead assist man for the Vaqueros, Javon Levi finished the afternoon with just 8-points (3-14 FGs) and 0 assists with 3 turnovers.
UTRGV also got a taste of their own medicine as a surprising defensive campaign by the Aggies caused 16 turnovers to just 10 assists. UTRGV also got to the charity stripe just 18-times on Tuesday. 18 free throw attempts is well below their season average of 25.7 attempts a game.
Both programs have a very short turn around before their next conference series begin on Friday. The Aggies head to St. George to take on WAC newcomers Dixie State. If the Aggies can keep the same defensive efforts and crash the boards again, they should be fine. If they lighten up in either area with the same shooting results, they are in for a tough weekend.
The Vaqueros return home to welcome Tarleton State to the WAC in their first-ever meeting as conference foes. They will allow in 1,200 fans to the Bert Ogden Arena for the series. Friday night tip time is at 7:00 PM CT. It will also be Lew Hill Tribute Night on Friday, to honor the program’s late head coach.