New Mexico State (16-16), the defending WAC tournament champions, got off to an awful start and never found much of a rhythm in a defensive-dominated game. Gillenwater made some big plays down the stretch, the NMSU bench outscored Nevada’s 16-1 and Castillo hit four free throws in the final 31 seconds to seal the win, sending the Aggies into Friday’s semifinals against Boise State.
“We wanted to keep going, we didn’t want to lose,” Castillo said. “If we lose, that’s probably the end of our season. We didn’t have a very good season, so we wanted to keep on winning and go to the NCAA tournament. It’s do or die.”
Nevada’s Malik Story had 22 points and hit a turnaround 3-pointer with about 20 seconds left to pull the Wolf Pack within two, but he had a key turnover and missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
Nevada had just four assists with 15 turnovers and missed 10 free throws to see its inconsistent season come to an end.
“We’ve just got to get better,” said Nevada’s Olek Czyz, who had 11 points. “We just have to finish at the end of the game and be tougher.”
The Wolf Pack lost three of its last four games in the regular season, the final one a 77-68 setback at New Mexico State.
Nevada pulled it together to open the WAC tournament, building a 19-point lead in the first half before holding off Fresno State behind Story’s career-high 34 points and six 3-pointers. The Wolf Pack also beat New Mexico State by 19 in Reno in January, getting 20-point nights from Deonte Burton and Dario Hunt while shooting 56 percent.
The Aggies hadn’t played since the regular season finale against Nevada last weekend and they seemed out of sorts early. New Mexico State missed its first five shots, had three turnovers — one an alley-oop pass to Gillenwater that looked like was going to crack the glass — and didn’t score until Hernst Laroche hit a driving layup 5:15 into the game.
The Aggies got only marginally better after that, hitting 9 of 23 shots in the first half while shooting 37 percent overall, including 2 of 9 from 3-point range. New Mexico State kept it close with tight defense, limiting chances inside and forcing the Wolf Pack to make moves off the dribble while holding the Reno school to 37 percent from the floor.
“They just took us out of our offense a little bit,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “We still had a chance to make plays, we just didn’t complete them.”
Nevada got off to a good start in the first half. It grabbed the early momentum, by jumping out to a 9-0 edge four minutes into the game.
New Mexico State did not score through the first five-plus minutes of the postseason affair. But once the Aggies did get going, they reeled off nine unanswered points of their own and the contest was deadlocked at 9-9, following a Christian Kabongo dunk in transition at the 11:47 mark of the first half.
Nevada responded with a Dario Hunt hook shot and a pair of Deonte Burton free throws to forge ahead 13-9. The Wolf Pack did not trail the rest of the half.
Leading 13-12 with eight minutes left before halftime, Nevada got a Burton runner and 3-pointers from Olek Czyz and Malik Story, pushing its lead back to nine, 21-12, with more than six minutes left before the break.
A modest 6-2 NMSU spurt helped the Aggies trim Nevada’s lead to 29-27 inside the final minute of the first half. However Hunt buried a fade-away jumper as time expired on the first half, accounting for the 31-27 score at the intermission.
One player the Aggies had a hard time stopping was Story. New Mexico State did a good job of it in the regular season, holding the Indiana transfer to 18 combined points on 6-of-26 shooting. After a slow start in quarterfinals, Story had a mini scoring flurry late in the first half, scoring eight quick points while the Wolf Pack built a nine-point lead.
He also took the ball out of Gillenwater’s hands in the second half and scored on a 3-point play on the other end to put the Wolf Pack up five with just over five minutes left. Story finished 9 of 16 from the floor after his last-second 3-pointer sailed long.
Gillenwater took a similar route. New Mexico State’s top scorer didn’t get on the board until a 3-point play with 6:23 left in the first half, but he still managed to score nine points in the first half. After Nevada went up 54-49 on Story’s steal-and-three, Gillenwater had a 3-point play of his own to tie it, then he dropped in a long 3-pointer with 1:38 left to put the Aggies up 60-55. New Mexico then sealed it at the free-throw line, where it went 28 of 34 overall.
“We did a good job, we went inside and made the free throws when we got them,” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said.