LAS CRUCES — Sometimes taking a break from time to time can be rejuvenating for those involved. It makes the activity, action or experience feel reignited when you start up again. Although, when the pause is a forced one, like a global pandemic and an ensuing whole season spent on the road, that feeling manifests tenfold.
That felt like the case on Saturday night, as the New Mexico State Aggies welcomed long-time rivals UTEP to the Pan American Center for the first time since December 3, 2019. The latest installment of the I-10 rivalry didn’t disappoint. In just its second home game in nearly two years, New Mexico State beat UTEP 77-71 in front of a post-pandemic crowd of nearly 8,100. The win gives the Aggies a 76-71 lead in the series, and makes Chris Jans 6-1 against the Miners overall.
The Miners will have another chance in about two weeks. New Mexico State travels to the Don Haskins Center after Thanksgiving on December 3. Until then, bragging rights stay in Las Cruces, and deservingly so.
THE I-10 RIVALRY IS ALIVE AND WELL
Sometimes taking a break is a good thing, even from a longstanding and important regional rivalry like NMSU vs. UTEP on the hardwood. These two programs will soon take this home-and-home series a little later in the year. And the rivalry will continue for years to come, only this time it will be as conference foes. New Mexico State joins UTEP in Conference USA starting July 1, 2023 as part of the latest round of expansion in college athletics. Will the move alter the dynamics of the rivalry for either community? Sure, just a bit given things like conference standings, seedings and awards are now a part of the equation. But, the game itself and the intensity from players and fans alike will likely go unchanged. You can point to Saturday night as an example. Plenty of new faces on both sidelines, but the fire was there from the tip-off.
A HARD FOUGHT VICTORY FOR THE AGGIES
“We expected a hard fought game and it was. They turned us over big time to start the game, got after us.” Chris Jans said on the start of the game. “Typical coach Golding fashion. I mean even when we were up 18 or 19 there in one of our media timeouts, eight or nine minutes left something like that. Just kept telling them they weren’t going to go away. And our guys were celebrating a little bit too much and talking about not letting the foot off the gas. That last six or seven minutes was a bit hard to watch from our perspective.”
The Miners never gave up and continued to battle on down by nearly 20 points until the final buzzer sounded. Though even given the high pressure defense and high level energy from their opponents, New Mexico State simply had quality players and made adjustments when needed to secure the win. The Aggies were led by transfer guard Teddy Allen with 16 points on 3-5 3-point shooting. Jabari Rice had 15 points and Donnie Tillman finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds.
There was also a combined 45 fouls in this one, accounting for nearly 31 total points. And honestly you couldn’t really attribute this to sloppy play, just a high-quality rivalry game.
COACH GOLDING’S MINERS NEVER LET OFF THE GAS
This was the first battle of the I-10 for plenty of players on each side. But this was also UTEP’s 1st-year head coach Joe Golding’s first taste of the rivalry as well, and his Miners came out barking. The game was very much a tale of two halves. With the Miners havoc style defense suffocating the Aggies from the very beginning.
The first half ended with only a five-point deficit to overcome, as both squads headed to the locker rooms with the Aggies up 35-30. That was a hard fought lead to take, with UTEP forcing 11 first-half turnovers as they attempted to cool down a hot-handed New Mexico State squad. Unfortunately, the Miners couldn’t duplicate their performance for another 20 minutes. The second-half score of 42-41 could be misleading. New Mexico State extended its lead by as much as 19 points and staved off a late 20-7 run to gain the victory.
“We did it for 20 minutes, now we’ve got to learn to do it for 40 minutes, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” said UTEP Head Coach Joe Golding on the Miners defensive efforts.
UTEP had four players hit double figures (Verhoeven, Kennedy & Bieniemy) but was led by redshirt junior guard Souley Boum, who made his season debut on the way to 21 points while shooting 42% from deep. As a squad, the Miners finished the night shooting 42.6% (26-61) from the field, 63.6% from the foul line (14-22). But an ugly 26.3% (5-19) from 3-point range could be easily pointed to as the difference maker in this one.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Yuat Alok-13 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block in 15 minutes
It was very easy to speak to the amount of experience and depth this New Mexico State team had in all of those preseason reviews looking back. But when the whistle blows and the ball is tipped, there is only 40 minutes of basketball to divide up among likely 10 Aggies who deserve time on the floor this season.
Still, with that in mind, production can be hard to come by on any given night. Just look at New Mexico State’s game one win over UC Irvine earlier this week, where only 6 Aggies scored and only 5 reached double figures. Yuat Alok, a 6’11 transfer from Coppin State was a spark plug off the bench Saturday night. Along with sky hooks and alley oops, the big man from New Zealand showed off his impressive 3-point range in this one, with a beautiful step-back three from the corner to make the home crowd go wild. With such production in such a short span of time, he takes this game’s player spotlight.
1H | 11:36 | ⬆️ 15-12
— NM State MBB (@NMStateMBB) November 14, 2021
The Aggies look towards their next scheduled game on Thursday, Nov. 18 in Conway, SC as a part of the field at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Heading to the East Coast with a 2-0 record will give the Aggies the confidence boost needed to show up in a competitive field. Chris Jans’ squad is set to take on the Davidson Wildcats at 10:00 AM MT.
Also on their side of the bracket is a matchup between the winner of Penn vs. Utah State later that day. The Quakers were predicted to finish 4th in the Ivy League, after missing the entire 2020-2021 season. Utah State is 1-1 on the year under new 1st year head coach Ryan Odom. The Aggies are coming off of an impressive win over top-100 ranked Richmond on Friday (85-74) in Annapolis, MD in the Veterans Classic.
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.