New Mexico State is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in the last seven years. The Aggies knocked off Grand Canyon 72-58 in front of a raucous, bipartisan crowd in Orleans Arena to lock up the WAC’s automatic bid.
Early on, it was a slugfest between two of the country’s best defenses. The game had little offensive flow as the Lopes took an 18-14 lead with just under five minutes left in the first half. But NMSU then got loose, closing the half on a 19-4 run to take an 11-point lead into the break.
The Aggies would maintain separation in the second half until GCU closed to within three points after a brilliant sequence by Alessandro Lever (20 points) with 9:11 left in the game. The WAC Freshman of the Year hit a step-back three pointer, and followed it up with another basket on the ensuing possession.
But from there, it was all NMSU.
The Aggies’ defense made life miserable on the Lopes down the stretch, holding GCU without a point for a nearly four-minute stretch as the lead would balloon to as many as 17 points.
Throughout the night, Aggies’ guard Zach Lofton (23 points) had his usual array of slashing and three-point shooting to pace the NMSU offense. Point guard A.J. Harris (20 points) may have had the shot of the night, as he drilled a three-pointer to stretch the lead to 13 points with 2:53 left in what was essentially the dagger.
GCU’s inconsistent offense, which has plagued it all season, reared its head again as Josh Braun (4 points) and Oscar Frayer (3 points) struggled. Keonta Vernon (17 points, 8 rebounds) had a tremendous outing in the Lopes’ biggest game in his tenure.
On the other end, Jemerrio Jones did what he has done all year (15 points, 19 rebounds), dominating the glass and helping push the pace to where NMSU wanted it. In the process, he set the WAC Tournament rebounding record, putting the bow on a historic season for the WAC Player of the Year.
For much of the season, the Aggies had flirted with an at-large dream after a strong non-conference that included wins over then-No. 6 Miami, Davidson and Illinois. But back-to-back losses in early February to Utah Valley and Seattle put an end to that talk, making the WAC Tournament yet again a win-or-bust proposition.
And despite being led by their third coach in the last three years, NMSU will return to the NCAA Tournament for the 24th time in program history. They should slot in the No. 12-13 range, and should present a challenge to whomever they face. Harris, Lofton and Sidy N’Dir make up one of the most athletic backcourts at the mid-major level, and there may not be a player quite like Jones in the country.