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A rivalry born? New Mexico State and Grand Canyon may be closer than you think

Could it be the Aggies have a, gasp, third rival?

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Grand Canyon Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

One thing that’s not in short supply in Las Cruces, N.M.? Rivalries.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another school that enjoys two legitimately bitter rivalries like New Mexico State does. New Mexico? There’s no doubt there’s venom between the in-state universities and, as Aggies super fan Shari Jones told us earlier this year, of all the games she’s watched in person, there’s just something special about winning in the Pit.

For many schools that’d be it. For NMSU, there’s enough left in the emotional tank to have a deeply antagonistic relationship with UTEP. The close proximity, the mutual explosion onto the national scene in the 60’s and 70’s under Lou Henson and Don Haskins. It’s another real, in-the-bone rivalry.

Could there possibly be a third?

If rivalries are forged in fire and not marketing brainstorming sessions, then a third may well be on the way. Saturday night it’ll feel like deja vu three times over in the Orleans Arena, as NMSU will meet Grand Canyon for the third straight time in the WAC Tournament championship game. It’s the first time in league history that a pair of teams will meet each other with everything on the line three consecutive times.

The Lopes are seeking their own impressive first, as a win would put the starry-eyed Phoenix program in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. First-year coach Bryce Drew talked about the opportunity ahead of his team after they blew out Seattle by 34 points in the semifinals.

“We’re excited for the opportunity. It’s a huge step to take and we’re thrilled to be in the championship game,” he said in the postgame press conference.

It’s a step the Lopes were unable to complete the two previous times under Dan Majerle, losing by double digits in both matchups. That was more or less in-line with what GCU had been, at least presumably in the eyes of most NMSU fans. An ambitious team with a glitzy arena, pestering, willing-to-travel student section and plenty of talent, but one that never truly challenged the heavyweight Aggies.

Yet the Lopes pounced on NMSU when it was most vulnerable this year.

GCU swept the two-game series in late January, beating an Aggie team that had played one game in the month prior due to a COVID pause, and was in the heart of its time being marooned at the Arizona Grand Resort in the Lopes’ backyard. It was the first time GCU took a season series from the Aggies since joining the WAC in 2013, and was the springboard to a 7-0 start that led to a share of the regular season title.

Now, the third matchup comes yet again with everything on the line.

The Lopes defense, which has excelled under Drew, stifled a Redhawks team that had scored at will against California Baptist in the quarterfinals and seemed poise to give GCU — a team it had beaten two weeks prior — a challenge. That didn’t remotely happen, with Jovan Blacksher (15 points, 5 assist) slicing up SU and Gabe McGlothan (14 points, 14 rebounds) having his finest game as a Lope.

NMSU, however, should pose more than a theoretical challenge. The Aggies are hot, healthy and playing like the team that was picked to win the WAC before its adversity-filled season. Redshirt senior forward Johnny McCants — who sank a dramatic half-court buzzer beater to sink GCU in 2019 — talked about the vibe around the team after the Aggies started both halves fast to get past Utah Valley on Friday night.

“I feel like we want it bad,” he said. “You can tell how the whole season went, we weren’t playing that well. We’ve clicked as a group lately, and for the first time we’re playing more team basketball. We just want to come out and play more of a team game.”

That team game has included Chris Jans deploying depth to great effect, as he has done before in his banner tenure in Las Cruces. It’s also included a hot streak from senior forward Donnie Tillman, who has scored in double figures in four straight games and frustrated UVU to the tune of 23 points in the semifinal.

McCants, Tillman, Jabari Rice and the Aggies depth against Alessandro Lever, Asbjorn Midtgaard, Blackser and potential X-factors like McGlothan? That’s the recipe for a juicy title game — but it also could be the recipe for a real, organic rivalry taking form.

From the outside, the programs couldn’t appear much different. A public university against a private school with a for-profit history, a tradition-rich fanbase against one that’s fervent but can feel choreographed. And between the two, one will deny the other a warm narrative in a difficult 2020-21 season. GCU holding back NMSU’s redemption, “it’s still us” story? The big bad Aggies denying the Lopes that coveted first trip to the NCAA Tournament? That’s the sort of emotion that births actual rivalries.

To be sure, only fans of either program can truly decide whether the emotion that exists between the two constitutes a rivalry, however one defines that loaded word.

The WAC is welcoming a passionate rivalry next year with the addition of the Piney Woods foes’ Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin. After tonight, the bones may be there for another rivalry within the league.