LAS VEGAS (AP) New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies walked into the postgame news conference with a net around his neck, the latest trophy from a run of titles.
No matter how many times the Aggies have earned a spot in the NCAA tournament, it never gets old.
Daniel Mullings scored 18 points, Sim Bhullar added 14 and New Mexico State won its third straight Western Athletic Conference tournament title by routing Idaho 77-55 Saturday night.
”Making the (NCAA) tournament is obviously a goal we had,” Menzies said. ”I’m very excited about getting back and hopefully making some noise when we get there.”
New Mexico State (26-9) often worked its offense through Bhullar, and the Vandals were unable to stop the Aggies’ 7-foot-5, 355-pound center around the rim or rotate fast enough when he kicked it out.
The second-seeded Aggies jumped to a big early lead and never gave Idaho a chance, shooting 56 percent while outscoring the Vandals 46-16 inside.
Bhullar was named tournament MVP. Tshilidzi Nephawe added 12 points for New Mexico State, which had a 38-21 advantage in rebounds to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament instead of having to sweat out Selection Sunday.
”This year’s been a roller coaster ride,” Mullings said. ”Like coach always says at the beginning of the season, all the teams in the NCAA, every team has its trials and tribulations just like we had ours. We had a couple highs, good games and good wins in nonconference and we had a couple of lows in conference play, but the good thing about us is we stick together.”
Idaho (16-18) beat New Mexico State in the teams’ last meeting this season, but was no match for the Aggies in its first conference title game since 1993.
Stephen Madison scored 17 points and Mike Scott had 14 for the Vandals, who haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1990.
”Our team battled. There was a point in the season where we could have given up and we didn’t,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. ”The last month of the season, we were playing as well as anyone in the Western Athletic Conference. I thought we played well in this tournament, but New Mexico State played better.”
The Vandals were the surprise of the bracket, the plucky underdogs with the losing record who had won one WAC tournament game in eight years before this season.
After going 7-9 in the WAC and 14-17 overall, Idaho opened the conference tournament by rallying in the second half to beat Missouri-Kansas City and followed that by knocking off top-seeded and regular-season champion Utah Valley.
New Mexico State had to survive a last-second shot to hold off Seattle in its tournament opener and rallied in the second half to knock off Cal State Bakersfield in the semifinals.
These teams split two games during the regular season; New Mexico blew out Idaho by 24 in Las Cruces, and the Vandals pulled out a six-point win on their home court.
New Mexico State dominated early, using its inside-out game and motion to hit 10 of its first 15 shots. The Aggies went on a 12-2 run to build a 23-13 lead and kept dropping shots, hitting 15 of 27 in the first half for a 39-25 lead.
The Vandals had particular trouble with Bhullar. With no one within eight inches or 130 pounds of him, Bhullar simply turned and dropped the ball into the basket several times in the first half, scoring 10 points to go along with six rebounds by halftime.
”He’s really difficult to prepare against because you have to put so much attention to him,” Verlin said. ”He really makes it tough.”
Little changed in the second half.
Bhullar kept getting deep post position – no one on Idaho’s team had any chance of pushing him out – and he scored a few baskets around the rim or kicked out to open shooters when the Vandals double- and triple-teamed him.
Idaho shot better early in the second half after going 9 for 27 in the first, but cooled off and continued to struggle with slowing the Aggies, never able to put a dent in their big lead.