KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The last time New Mexico State left this Midwestern city, they did so empty-handed.
They didn’t, however, leave without opening eyes after battling then-No. 2 Kansas to the wire in the Sprint Center. In the Jayhawks’ yearly non-conference stop in downtown Kansas City, NMSU was far from a sacrificial lamb for the blue blood. The Aggies outrebounded the Big 12 power, held a lead with under five minutes left and nearly knotted the game as time expired.
Aftewards, Chris Jans said his team had opportunities, but just couldn’t knock Kansas out. Back in the same town nearly three months later, the Aggies finally landed that knock out punch.
This time to the rest of the WAC.
In a cozier gym against a different opponent, NMSU beat UMKC 75-55 to seal the outright WAC regular season title. It’s the second-straight year the Aggies will end the regular season alone atop the standings, and the clinching win ran their winning streak to 14 games.
NMSU dominated the final 15 minutes of the first half after a solid opening stanza from the Roos. The team stayed locked in coming out of the break with an 18-point lead, with A.J. Harris in particular diving for a loose ball minutes into the second half.
It exactly the sort of focus Jans wanted.
“We tried to put a lot of pressure on our team heading into this game,” he said. “I wanted them to feel desperate, like this was our only chance to win the conference championship. I wanted to put them in that situation since we’re going to be in it in a couple of weeks in Las Vegas.”
And while the Aggies will enter Sin City as the league’s number one seed, it hasn’t been the most conventional path to that spot.
On the opening day of WAC play, NMSU played the bad guy in Cal Baptist’s first league home game. In a fairytale result, the Lancers held on to grab a signature win against the conference heavyweight. Stung with a surprising loss, NMSU returned home on Jan. 10 for a date with the biggest supposed threat to their league supremacy, Grand Canyon.
After coughing up a lead in the final minutes due to turnovers and missed free throw’s, Las Cruces native Johnny McCants saved the day by breezily dropping in a half court buzzer beater. That magical moment in the Pan Am Center was the first of 14-straight wins after the loss in Riverside. Along the way there have been other close calls, like a last-minute scramble at UTRGV, or an improbable comeback at CSU Bakersfield.
As it turned out, the shock on opening night may have ultimately been a positive.
“I never dreamt we’d reel off that many wins in a row after that game,” Jans said. “It was what the doctor ordered at that particular point in time. A lot of coaches will talk about needing a loss going into the tournament. We’re talking about, ‘it’s too late for that, we need to keep going and keep building momentum.’”
Even with that wave of momentum, there are still items for the Aggies to check off. Jans said the team is focused on improving defensively before the tournament, and he’s liked their effort on that end over the past few games. That was apparent on Thursday night, as UMKC repeatedly had to settle for deep three’s.
Another is health, as redshirt senior Eli Chuha stayed in Las Cruces for NMSU’s two-game road swing to recover from a minor back injury. Jans downplayed the seriousness of the injury, and said that the team had Chuha on FaceTime as soon as they got in the locker room to celebrate the title.
Without Chuha — the team’s leading rebounder — and with junior guard Terrell Brown missing the majority of the second half after landing awkwardly on a drive to the basket, the Aggies did what they have done all season: overwhelm teams with numbers. 12 players scored against the Roos, with none scoring more than 12 points in a balanced, transition-heavy attack.
“They’re one of the deepest teams I’ve ever been around in all my years of college coaching,” Roos coach Kareem Richardson said. “We’re trying to prepare for how to combat them wearing you down, so you slow things down a bit. It kind of took us out of our rhythm, but that’s what they do.”
The Aggies finish up with a road game against Chicago State, and then host CBU to bookend the regular season. After that it’s on to Las Vegas, where they’ll try to capture their seventh NCAA tournament appearance in the past eight seasons. It’s been smooth sailing in that setting since the WAC took its current form for the 2013-14 season, as the Aggies have gone 12-1 in league tournament games.
If the winning streak continues to grow then, who knows, a third trip to Kansas City — a regional final site — might be in the cards.