Justin Hawkins of New Mexico State drove to the basket against Chaz Spicer of Utah State last night in the WAC final.
Hosts run table for WAC crown
LAS CRUCES, N.M. » Not a bad rookie performance, indeed.
As a first-time host of the Western Athletic Conference tournament, Las Cruces and New Mexico State received positive reviews from those converging on this desert town in southern New Mexico.
"It's remote, but when you get here the hospitality has been outstanding and the crowds have been good," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace, who has been to 19 of these shindigs in 11 different cities.
Inside the Pan American Center, the home crowd helped boost the host school to a pretty memorable week as well.
New Mexico State captured its first WAC championship by holding off Utah State 72-70 in last night's title game before a rowdy sellout crowd of 11,948.
NMSU (25-8) won the battle of the Aggies and captured the WAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament despite squandering a 17-point first-half lead and seeing Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll score a game-high 26 points.
Just two years removed from a 6-24 season, NMSU will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999 under second-year NMSU coach Reggie Theus -- who was backed by a vocal fan following, many wearing "Reggie Nation" shirts.
"It has been the entire city of Las Cruces that turned this program around," Theus said after a wild on-court celebration. "When you come into the Pan-Am you're in a very hostile place, a tough place to play. The atmosphere is tremendous."
The tournament was the best attended since the 1998 event in Las Vegas with a total of 49,650 and an average of 9,930 per session.
Tournament MVP Justin Hawkins led NMSU with 20 points in the final. Guard Elijah Ingram joined him on the All-Tournament team after posting 18 points and hitting four 3-pointers.
Had his last-second 3-pointer fallen through the net, Carroll would likely have nabbed MVP honors after scoring 74 points in three tournament games for Utah State.
Utah State (23-11) lost the championship game on the opponent's home floor for the second straight season and will probably get a bid to the National Invitation Tournament today. Last year in Reno, the Aggies took host Nevada to overtime before losing in the title game.
"We're playing the conference championship on a non-neutral court and that's a tremendous advantage for New Mexico State," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "That's the way it works sometimes. I'm not saying that's why they won, but it sure helped them out."
"We had Hawaii, Nevada and New Mexico State. That's a tough order and we dang near got it done."
New Mexico State blitzed Utah State in the game's opening moments, hitting seven of its first eight shots and taking a 16-4 lead before the first media timeout.
"They kind of take you by storm," Morrill said.
NMSU led 35-25 at halftime, but Utah State refused to fold and took off on a 12-0 run and took its first lead at 47-46 on a Stephen DuCharme layup with 10:12 left in the game.
The game remained tight and NMSU reclaimed a seven-point edge at 68-61 on Hawkins' dunk to cap a fast break with 2:43 left. Still, Utah State hung close and had the ball with less than a minute left, trailing 70-68.
But NMSU guard Ted Knauber, a former walk-on who finished with 10 points, came up with a steal and made two free throws with 12.2 seconds left.
Carroll scored his final points on a putback with 1.6 seconds left and Utah State got a huge break when NMSU forward Tyrone Nelson's long inbounds pass went out of bounds without being touched.
The miscue gave Utah State possession under its basket and the Aggies got the ball to Carroll, who took a fadeaway 3-pointer that fell short at the buzzer.
"Sometimes it goes in and other times it doesn't. It didn't go in this time," Carroll said.
Hawkins, Ingram, Carroll, Utah State's Chaz Spicer and Nevada's Marcelus Kemp were named to the all-tournament team.
Boise women win WAC
LAS CRUCES, N.M. » Tasha Harris scored 10 of her 13 points in the second half and top seed Boise State finally found enough offense to beat New Mexico State 49-46 to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament yesterday.
Boise State (24-8) won despite a horrendous first half of shooting. The Broncos had just one field goal in the final 11 1/2 minutes and hit just five of 29 shots in the first half.
Amanda Stewart's putback with 4:18 left put the Broncos ahead 48-44 and Jessica Thompson added a free throw with 8.6 seconds remaining. New Mexico State's only points over the final 4 minutes were a pair of free throws by Sherell Neal with 1:18 remaining.
New Mexico State (13-18) fell short in its bid to pull off another upset. For the second straight year the Aggies made it to the championship game as the seventh seed, but again came up short.