To say the least, New Mexico State is on an impressive streak.
The Aggies polished off their 20th and 21st consecutive wins to start this pandemic-affected season, which pulled them even with the longest winning streak in program history. It’s also the second-longest active winning streak in the country, trailing only Division I newcomer UC San Diego, which racked up 22 straight wins in Division II and has yet to play a game this season.
It’s been a remarkable run, except it’s not the only streak in or around the Aggies’ program.
There was plenty out of the ordinary when NMSU opened its season at Arizona Christian on November 29. The temporarily-displaced, Phoenix-based Aggies were the road team in a tiny NAIA gym having had limited practice time together due to the state of New Mexico’s pandemic-related rules.
But arguably most notably, Shari Jones wasn’t on hand for the first time in 89 games.
To be sure, the woman who describes herself as being raised on Aggie basketball was still vocal as NMSU held off an upset bid in the final minute, but COVID restrictions kept her away from the action for the first time in nearly three years. The Aggie super fan instead watched the opener at her mother’s house.
“I yelled a lot, I think she got a little tired of me,” Jones said with a laugh.
There’s nothing tired about Aggie basketball for Jones. The longtime fan began going to NMSU games when the Aggies played their home games at Las Cruces High School gym, and she still sits in the same seats her parents bought as season ticket holders when the Pan American Center opened in 1968. Her mother, an NMSU athletics department employee, worked for legendary coach Lou Henson for a few months, and Jones became friends with Henson’s children — Lori and Lou Jr. — in junior high school.
She’d go on to attend NMSU, and has been a part of the university’s fabric ever since, serving a stint as the NMSU Alumni Association president and being named to the NMSU College of Business Hall of Fame in 2009.
So of course, Jones was watching as Zach Lofton led the Aggies to a non-conference win at UC Irvine in late December 2017. She was doing so from a hotel room in Tucson, where the Aggie football team was set to play the next day in its first bowl game since 1960. If not for that run to the Arizona Bowl, Jones would’ve been in Irvine cheering on the Aggie basketball team in person.
She was, however, there for NMSU’s next game at Chicago State on Jan. 6, 2018 and until this season tipped, had been there in person for every Aggie possession after that 37-point win in the Windy City. It was an 89-game streak that plopped off Jones’ bucket list and into reality after she retired in 2016.
“I wanted to do an entire season where I could travel,” she said. “It wasn’t always a conscious effort, it was just sort of like, ‘I’m retired, there’s not a wedding, or some event or some illness.’ So I just kept going and I would’ve done that this year until there was a reason not to go.”
The streak included two WAC Tournament titles in Las Vegas, as well as the Aggies near-upset of (ultimately) Final Four-bound Auburn in Salt Lake City in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. There were road trips to Denver, Jackson, Mississippi, Spokane, the Cayman Islands and others sprinkled in with the usual slate of geographically-dispersed WAC destinations. The streak went international as well as Jones traveled with NMSU during its overseas trip to Spain during the summer of 2018. There were some tight squeezes, such as the knotty jaunt between Seattle and Bakersfield (via Fresno) when the WAC had paired the Redhawks and Roadrunners as travel partners.
The closest call, however, was the road game closest to home.
Last year, Jones sweated out the clock during everyone’s favorite civic obligation: jury duty. The jury selection process dragged throughout the day, which may not have been a problem but for the Aggies having a date that night at rival UTEP.
“It was going on and on and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘no way, I’m going to miss a game now?’” she recalls.
Jones said the jury panel was finally set around 3:30 or 4 p.m. — without her on it. She ran from the courthouse and made the roughly 45-mile trip south on I-10 from Las Cruces to El Paso, in the end having enough time to get a bite to eat.
John Vu, who worked in media relations for the Aggies from 2015-19, saw Jones’s impact on the program firsthand.
“To put things into basketball terms, Shari has got to arguably be one of the program’s best recruits,” said Vu, who now serves as the Associate Director of Communications at Utah. “The countless hours of work and energy she’s put into the program, leading the fundraising arm for Aggie basketball’s 6th Man Club. The amount of money she’s helped raise through organizing the annual Tip-Off Dinner and other functions since way before my time and many more to come is monumental for a mid-major program like New Mexico State.”
Vu estimates that Jones missed only a handful of the 100 or so games he worked directly with the men’s basketball team over his time at NMSU. A chunk of that coincided with the beginning of the 89-game streak, which itself saw some moments that stand out to Jones.
There was the win against bitter rival New Mexico in the Pit in 2018, which she said is always special. There was also a late comeback at CSU Bakersfield, a frequent foil for NMSU in the WAC, in 2019 where the Aggies trailed by eight points with just over a minute left yet fought back to win. And then there was NMSU forward Johnny McCants sinking a half-court buzzer beater to sink Grand Canyon in the Pan Am Center in 2019.
That one stood out to Jones because she said she’d seen the Aggies lose on that type of shot multiple times before. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the details of a half-court shot that UNM forward Clayton Shields hit to beat NMSU in the mid 90s, as well as a half-court shot — then worth two points — that Indiana State’s Bob Heaton hit to force overtime against the Aggies in 1979.
That Sycamores team, of course, was most notable for a player Jones remembers watching foul out in that game: Larry Bird.
Like so many college basketball fans across the country, Jones will likely need to watch any such dramatic moments this season from afar. She described her feeling as melancholy as she prepared to watch her first Aggies game in nearly three years from a TV.
“I’m so grateful the guys are safe and I’ll tell you the thing that really struck me watching the game. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t there; it was that I realized I hadn’t met any of the newcomers,” she said. “That’s one of the things, we have a lot of our 6th Man Club events, big dinners at the beginning of year and you see the guys, and when I do travel I’m on the fringes with them observing, so you feel like you get to know them and meet a lot of their parents on the road.”
Asked if she’d start a new streak once normality returns, Jones didn’t hesitate.