LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The New Mexico State men’s basketball team won its 22nd-consecutive home Western Athletic Conference matchup Thursday night after defeating Grand Canyon University, 81-57, inside the Pan American Center.
The Aggies conclude the WAC regular season with a 12-4 conference record and can still become WAC co-champions if Utah Valley loses at home to Bakersfield on Friday night. NM State finishes the regular season 23-9 overall, its fifth time with 20-plus wins under head coach Marvin Menzies, including the last three seasons.
It was ‘Senior Night’ inside the Pan American as NM State celebrated seniors Kevin Aronis and Renaldo Dixon who were playing their final game on the Aggie home court.
Neither disappointed as Aronis finished with 17 points, 15 of which came in the first half, on 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range while Dixon added seven points and was right behind rebound leader Sim Bhullar with 11 total boards. Aronis moved to eighth all-time in 3-pointers made in a season for NM State with his five 3’s.
Bhullar led the Aggies in both points and rebounds to mark his seventh double-double of the season and third straight. He finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
Junior guard Daniel Mullings tied Aronis with 17 points while center Tshilidzi Nephawe added another 15 points and nine rebounds, missing his ninth double-double by one rebound.
NM State shot 44.1 percent from the field (26-of-59) and 37.5 percent from beyond the arc (6-of-16) while holding the ‘Lopes to 33.9 perecent from the field (21-of-62) and only 20 percent from 3-point range (3-of-15).
Both offenses started off slow in the first half. The first points of the game, from Mullings, didn’t come until over 1:30 into the matchup. The 2-0 lead for the Aggies would not last long as ‘Lopes guard Akachi Okugo sank a 3-pointer two minutes into the game.
NM State would not see the lead again until midway through the half, although it would also not trail by more than five points.
Aronis’ first three of the game tied the score up at nine with 13:49 left in the half. But the ‘Lopes would not give up the lead and led 15-11 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
Over the next five minutes, however, the Aggies would finally gain some rhythm as they embarked on a 15-4 run that included a couple more 3-pointers from Aronis, the first of which gave NM State its first lead since 2-0 at 16-15 with 9:30 left in the half.
After a couple of Mullings’ free throws, the Aggies led 26-19 with just under five minutes left in the first half. GCU marked the next six points over the next minute, however, to cut the NM State lead to 26-25.
The Aggies gained the momentum right back with another run to end the half. NM State outscored the ‘Lopes 12-2 over the last four minutes as another Aronis’ 3-pointer ended the first-half scoring and gave the Aggies their first double-digit lead, 38-27, heading into the locker room.
Aronis shot 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in the first half to mark all of his 15 first-half points. He was the only Aggie in double figures after half number one. Nephawe and Bhullar led the team with six rebounds apiece.
NM State shot 50 percent from 3-point range in the first half (5-10), with Aronis sinking all five 3-pointers for the Aggies. NM State shot 39.4 percent from the field (13-33) while holding GCU to 33.3 percent from the field (10-30) and only 25 percent for beyond the arc (3-12).
The Aggies rode their first-half momentum into the second half as they marked the first six points of the final half to take control of the game. Consecutive buckets by Mullings and Bhullar gave NM State a 50-31 lead with 15:32 left in the game. A couple of Mullings’ free throws extended the lead to 20 for the first time at 56-36 with 13:34 left in the contest.
It wasn’t only the Aggie offense that started clicking, their defense had one of its better halves of the season as well, allowing only three ‘Lopes field goals during the first 10 minutes of the second half while not allowing a made 3-pointer in the half.
NM State put it on cruise control during the final 10 minutes, leading by as many as 28 points, as the Aggies sent seniors Aronis and Dixon out with a 81-57 win during their final home game at NM State.
The Aggies will now focus on the 2014 WAC Tournament and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The conference tournament will run from Thursday, March 13, through Saturday, March 15, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. NM State is currently the No. 2 seed in the WAC Tournament.