LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There would be no comeback this time.
New Mexico State jumped jumped on Louisiana Tech early and unlike Hawaii the previous night, the upset-minded Bulldogs never threatened.
The No. 2 Aggies won their second Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship in three years, beating No. 5 Louisiana Tech 82-57 in Saturday’s tournament final at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
“I think we learned our lesson,” said Aggies head coach Marvin Menzies, whose team improved to 26-9 on the season. “After throwing the first punch the last couple of games, it was evident that the guys were really focused. I thought the way they handled the lead tonight was much more surgical.”
The Aggies secured their 19th NCAA Tournament appearance and sixth conference tournament championship by out muscling a smaller Bulldogs team that advanced to Saturday’s final with upset victories over defending champion Utah State and top-seeded Nevada.
“I think it means a lot to a lot of people,” Menzies said. “We have a fantastic support for such a small town. We had a lot of people come out. There were some people from Albuquerque. New Mexico sports supports New Mexico. The Lobos winning and us winning as well, it’s great for the state.”
The Aggies returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
“In 2010, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we are going to the Tournament,’” said WAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Wendell McKines. “Now we know what to expect in the tournament and we know we can play with anybody. We are looking forward to the tournament now and making noise.”
This year’s tournament team is built differently.
“We were more capable scorers from the perimeter (in 2010),” Menzies said. “We could shoot the ball better I thought. Now, I think we have a more balanced attack. We have some guards who can bounce it. We maybe don’t shoot it as prolifically as that team but we definitely have a stronger interior force.”
Aggie junior Tyrone Watson scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half and freshman guard Daniel Mullings added 12 points.
“For me (in 2010), I was kind of a spectator so I got to play 35 minutes so it feels good,” said Watson, who landed on the All-Tournament team with McKines and senior point guard Hernst Laroche. “We came together as a unit right now. It’s just us. It’s us against the world.”
McKines secured a double-double in the first half and finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds on 12-for-16 shooting
“Night in and night out, there is not a more passionate player who I have ever coached,” Menzies said.
NMSU scored the first eight points of the game and led 38-20 at the half, doubling up the Bulldogs on the boards in the first half and limiting Louisiana Tech to 25 percent shooting in the first half.
The lead bloated to as many as 31 in the second half.
The Aggies led by as many as 20 in the first half after a 12-2 run to open a 36-16 lead with 1:53 left in the half.
NMSU finished 55.9 percent from the floor and out rebounded the Bulldogs 46-27 with 13 offensive rebounds and a 56-32 advantage in the paint.
The Aggies started the game 12-for-18 from the floor and led by 13 with 10:52 to play in the first half. The Bulldogs started 7-for-25 and 0-for-9 from 3-point range after shooting 52 percent from 3-point range in upset wins over Utah State and Nevada this week. Louisiana Tech missed its first 12 attempts from 3-point range and finished 3-for-18.
“I felt that off the bounce, I would be more effective,” Watson said. “We scouted them pretty hard. I just wanted to make sure that (Louisiana Tech guard Trevor Gaskins) didn’t get hot early.”
NMSU captured its third WAC Tournament title with a point differential of 17.3 points per game with wins over No. 7 Fresno State, No. 6 Hawaii and Louisiana Tech.
The Aggies will learn their NCAA Tournament destination and opponent along with the rest of the country on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Albuquerque is a first-round site this year.
“That would be our dream site,” Menzies said. “I don’t think it would make a difference as to how we play outside of the fact that we would have more support. But it would be nice.”
For McKines, Laroche and Aggies center Hamidu Rahman, their potential seed doesn’t seem to matter. NMSU hasn’t deviated much from their style of play this year.
Why should they, their 26 wins match the program’s most since Neil McCarthy’s team went 26-8 in 1992-93.
This week’s run through the WAC proved that the Aggies are built for postseason play.
“If we play our game, we can play with anybody,” McKines said. “Look where we are.”