Broncos and Aggies left to fight over WAC’s berth
LAS CRUCES, N.M. » Karl Benson is confident the Western Athletic Conference's status as a "one-bid league" is temporary.
"This is a one-year anomaly," the WAC commissioner said Thursday. "We'll be back producing two or three NCAA Tournament teams next year."
But for the moment, with the WAC's national profile dropping significantly this season, either New Mexico State or Boise State will likely be the conference's lone representative in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are released tomorrow.
Third-seeded NMSU, the tournament host and defending champion, faces the fourth-seeded Broncos today in the WAC tournament final at the Pan American Center. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m. Hawaii time.
While NMSU reached the NCAA Tournament last year, the Broncos haven't qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1994.
The Aggies, who swept the regular-season series against Boise State, will again have the backing of a raucous crowd at the Pan American Center as they seek a title repeat after knocking out second-seeded Nevada 75-63 in the semifinals last night.
Boise State last reached the final in 2005 as the eighth seed and advanced last night by eliminating top-seeded Utah State.
"I think it'll be another grind-it-out game," NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. "I think it'll be another one that goes the distance with two heavyweights slugging."
The Aggies survived last night's meeting with Nevada despite letting a 13-point lead evaporate in the second half. With NMSU up 57-44, Nevada guard Brandon Fields scored all 10 of his points in a 17-4 run and tied the game at 61-61 with his second 3-pointer with 4:21 left.
Freshman Herb Pope then triggered a 13-2 spurt, giving the Aggies the lead for good with a tip-in and adding a short jumper in the lane and a dunk moments later. He finished with a career-high 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds as the Aggies controlled the boards 52-25.
"Rebounding was just phenomenal," Menzies said. "My guys were warriors and I'm just proud of them for answering the call."
Nevada was led by All-WAC guard Marcelus Kemp's 19 points, and coach Mark Fox conceded that the Wolf Pack's run of NCAA Tournament appearances will end at four.
"I don't feel like our season's over," Fox said. "I think we deserve to be in postseason play, but it's going to be a difficult 48 hours until we find out."
The WAC has gotten multiple NCAA bids in 23 of the last 24 years, and the league's performance in nonconference play figures to be a key to rebounding from this year's slide.
"I think it comes down to the top teams have to win some signature games," Fox said.
Boise State 88, Utah State 78
The Broncos avenged two regular-season losses to the Aggies, including one that cost BSU the outright title eight days earlier, in eliminating the tournament's top seed.
"I thought we played with a greater sense of urgency tonight," BSU coach Greg Graham said. "We set the tone early and made them come after us."
BSU guard Matt Bauscher went 5-for-6 from 3-point range and tied forward Reggie Larry for game-high honors with 23 points and Boise State won a matchup of the nation's top two shooting teams.
Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll, the WAC Player of the Year, went 6-for-12 from 3-point range and finished with 20 points in his final WAC game.