LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Aggies passed their chemistry test.
New Mexico State fended off a furious rally by UT Arlington with less than two minutes left, getting 16 points, 15 rebounds and five block shots from Sim Bhullar to pull out a 64-55 victory over the Mavericks on Saturday night for its second straight Western Athletic Conference championship and automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
Holding a 32-30 lead at halftime, New Mexico State (24-10) used a 19-8 run to open its biggest lead of the game, going up 51-38 with 11:27 left.
The Mavericks wouldn’t go quietly.
Kevin Butler’s 3-pointer from the top of the key with 10:17 left sparked a 15-5 run that pulled UT Arlington within three points with 1:55 remaining.
But Terrel de Rouen’s soft jumper just outside the key with 1:17 remaining halted the Mavericks’ surge and shifted the momentum back toward the Aggies, who closed the game on an 8-2 run to seal the win.
“He is such a competitor,” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said of de Rouen. “We just have fantastic chemistry on this team. The New Mexico State Aggies are a family.”
While the Aggies shot 43 percent from the field (20 of 47), they limited UT Arlington to 39 percent shooting (22 of 56), including a paltry 3 of 13 (23.0 percent) from long range.
“I want to tell UT Arlington there is life after loss,” Menzies said. “They have great character on that team and you hate to see someone in pain. But this is NCAA March Madness.
“The key tonight was defending the 3-point shot. The kids stuck together. We have a lot of character.”
Daniel Mullings added 16 points and six rebounds for the third-seeded Aggies, while Bandja Sy contributed with 10 points and six boards.
“Give New Mexico credit. They’re a great defensive team,” Texas-Arlington coach Scott Cross said. “We were picked sixth or seventh (in the WAC). Our four seniors helped us take a step to the next level. I’m proud of these guys.”
Butler led the fourth-seed Mavericks (19-13) with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Karol Gruszecki had 11 points and Jordan Reves added 10 points and six rebounds.
Neither team could build a lead larger than six points in the first half, as the game went back and forth, seeing five ties and eight lead changes over the first 20 minutes. Bhullar connected on 4 of 5 from the field and had 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone to pace the Aggies, while Butler led the Mavericks with 10 first-half points.
“(Bhullar is) such a load down there,” Cross said. “He can finish. He was 4 of 8 from the free-throw line, but it seemed like he made them all.”
The Aggies went into the game leading the series 11-2 after the teams split the regular-season meetings, each winning on their own court. Arlington took the first meeting, back on Dec. 29, embarrassing New Mexico State, 68-47, while the Aggies got revenge in the second meeting, on March 9, winning 69-66.
With Saturday’s victory, New Mexico State has now won six straight WAC tournament games by at least nine points, and by an overall average margin of 14.3 points per win. Since joining the WAC in 2005-06, the Aggies have a 17-4 record in the conference tournament, and previously won the title in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
“The component is recruiting kids from good families,” Menzies said. “One parent or two parents, it doesn’t matter. Our kids come from good stock.
“And we’ve had some life lessons this year, I’m glad we’ve reached one of our goals. We wanted to dance for (senior) Bandja Sy for a third time; a lot of teams can’t say that.”