So much for the WAC regular season title riding on this weekend.
A wild Thursday night saw the league race swing wildly over the course of a few hours. The dust finally settled after Trevelin Queen capped a furious New Mexico State comeback with a buzzer-beating three to drop CSU Bakersfield in overtime.
That the Aggies were in that spot was a testament to a team that has had plenty of late-game fortitude this season. Down nine with just 1:09 to go, NMSU forced the ‘Runners usually sure-handed back court into four turnovers over the final minute. Queen’s dramatic moment a few minutes later leads to a big-time “if only” feeling in Bakersfield.
The ‘Runners shrugged off a flat opening 13 minutes — in which they scored just six points and trailed by 17 — to sandwich a 24-4 run around halftime. This got them back into the game, and from there Jarkel Joiner’s mid-range magic (25 points) had them positioned for a big win. So much so, that certain sleep-deprived bloggers with toddlers figured it was game, set and match at the Icardo Center before drifting off.
That wasn’t to be, foolish as it was to doubt an NMSU team that has now won three league games in the final seconds. But had CSUB won, the ‘Runners — who mildly surprised with a 6-1 WAC start — would’ve been right in the thick of the league race, in large part because of what happened several hundred miles to the east earlier in the night.
Grand Canyon had rebounded from a first-half Vaqueros surge to lead by eight points with just over 10 minutes left. From there, UTRGV fearlessly attacked the basket — as it had done all night — and dumped the Lopes in their home gym.
It was a tremendous win for UTRGV, and the first time they had left GCU Arena with a league victory in hand. As we talked about earlier this week, they aren’t a team to dismiss, particularly when savvy veteran guard Tyson Smith (21 points) is scoring like he did Thursday night.
Counter to what we said earlier this week, the Lopes did not look a league favorite. Carlos Johnson (13 points) played well, but wasn’t at the shining level he’d been over the three games prior. That lack of decisive option did in a still-vulnerable GCU offense that couldn’t solve a tough UTRGV defense whose formation and pressure kept them from getting any rhythm. This was a tricky game, but one GCU would’ve been well-served to pull of it’s to win its first WAC title.
In the end, NMSU (8-1) sits a game ahead of GCU (7-2) with the teams’ Saturday showcase losing a bit of luster. An Aggie win and potential tiebreaker firmly puts the title in their grasp, as the hardest part of their road schedule would be over, and they’d be looking at four of their final six games in the Pan Am Center. CSUB, meanwhile, faces a steep climb to get itself back in the race.
It was a dramatic night in the WAC, and one that may have taken the longer term drama out of the rest of the regular season.