NMSU going dancing with third straight WAC title
LAS VEGAS — 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.
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.
Tshilidzi Nephawe added 12 points for New Mexico State, which had a 38-21 advantage in rebounds.
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.
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.
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.