On “Whiteout Night,” the 8,074 fans in attendance watched Nevada pick up the victory and win its first WAC title in four years. Nevada shared the WAC crown with Boise State, NMSU and Utah State in 2007-08. The Pack last had an outright conference crown in 2006-07, the last year it went to the NCAA Tournament.
It was far from the Wolf Pack’s prettiest win of the winter, but it did sew up the top seed in next week’s WAC Tournament, which will be played at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, starting March 8.
“I’m very proud,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “These guys have really bought into committing themselves to be winners and champions. When we recruit every young man we talk about our goals of winning 20 games a year, challenging for a championship and I think the guys last year were really embarrassed because they knew they were better, but we were just inexperienced. I think the experience has really helped us win a championship.”
Nevada (24-5, 12-1 WAC) missed all seven of its three-point tries in the second half. It shot just 8-of-26 from the floor after halftime. The Wolf Pack managed just 22 second-half points. It also held the visiting Aggies scoreless for seven-plus minutes in the second half and yet still found itself in a two-point game in the final minute.
Malik Story tipped in his own miss for Nevada with 3:03 remaining in the contest. That gave the Wolf Pack a 63-54 lead, but it needed every point it could get.
Aggies guard Daniel Mullings threw down a dunk with 57 ticks showing on the game clock to pull New Mexico State (22-9, 9-4) within two, 63-61.
On the following Nevada possession, Pack point guard Deonte Burton missed on an ill-advised 35-foot 3-point try from straight away. New Mexico State corralled the rebound and had a chance to tie or take the lead.
Nevada got the key defensive stop it needed when it forced NMSU point guard Hernst Laroche to fire a pass wide of a teammate’s grasp and out of bounds.
After a foul, Burton converted two free throws with 1.1 seconds left and Nevada had its four-point win.
“It was a hard fought game,” Story said. “We just executed. It came down to the last play and we broke it down on defense. It’s a great win for us. Champions feels great.”
The Wolf Pack never could shake the Aggies. The Reno team had a seven-point, 43-36, lead at halftime, but after a Wendell McKines trey, New Mexico State got within two, 43-41 just over two minutes into the second half.
The margin was four, 52-48, after two McKines free throws with 11:43 remaining in the conference clash. That’s when the offensive well went dry for the Las Cruces, New Mexico squad.
It did not score again until the 4:11 mark, but Nevada had only scored seven points in the Aggies’ drought.
Despite its offensive struggles, McKines buried a 3-pointer with 3:45 left and New Mexico State only trailed by five, 59-54, setting the stage for crunchtime.
Nevada’s first-half edge was largely due to some solid shooting from beyond the arc and productive bench play. The Wolf Pack buried 7-of-9 from 3-point land before the break and got 10 points from its bench. Reserves Devonte Elliott, Jordan Finn, Jordan Burris and Kevin Panzer all had a bucket in the first 20 minutes and reserve Patrick Nyeko knocked down a pair of free throws.
Story has struggled over the better part of a month, but seemed to find his stroke in the first half Thursday night. He dropped four 3-point bombs in a span of less than two minutes, accounting for his 12 first-half points.
Nevada was up just four, 27-23, with 6:26 left before halftime following back-to-back 3-pointers by New Mexico State’s Remi Barry and McKines.
Nevada responded with a 9-2 run and pushed its lead to double digits, 36-25, for the first time in the contest. The Wolf Pack led by 11 four times in the final five minutes of the first half.
The NMSU crew recorded the last two baskets of the first half, making up the 43-36 halftime score.
McKines scored 19 points to lead all scorers. Laroche and Mullings added 12 and 10 for NMSU.
Olek Czyz paced Nevada with 15 points while Story and Dario Hunt chipped in 14 and 10 respectively for the Wolf Pack. Hunt also had six blocks.
“It was must win,” Hunt said. “I don’t like sharing too much so I was trying to do whatever I can to help my team win. I knew they were going to come to the basket as hard as they could but I just wanted to be there to contest every shot and that’s what I did.”
Nevada concludes its regular season Saturday night when it hosts Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m.
NEW MEXICO ST. (22-9)
McKines 6-15 3-4 19, Watson 3-9 0-1 6, Rahman 1-6 0-0 2, Laroche 3-9 5-7 12, Mullings 4-11 2-5 10, Barry 1-3 0-0 3, Sy 2-8 0-0 5, Nephawe 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 22-65 10-17 61.
Czyz 6-12 2-4 15, Hunt 4-8 2-4 10, Evans Jr. 2-5 0-0 5, Burton 3-12 2-3 9, Story 5-12 0-0 14, Nyeko 0-2 2-2 2, Elliott 1-1 0-0 2, Finn 1-1 2-2 4, Burris 1-2 0-0 2, Panzer 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-56 10-15 65.
Halftime_Nevada 43-36. 3-Point Goals_New Mexico St. 7-18 (McKines 4-8, Barry 1-3, Sy 1-3, Laroche 1-4), Nevada 7-16 (Story 4-7, Czyz 1-2, Evans Jr. 1-2, Burton 1-4, Burris 0-1). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_New Mexico St. 42 (McKines 13), Nevada 38 (Evans Jr., Story 6). Assists_New Mexico St. 17 (Laroche, Watson 5), Nevada 16 (Story 5). Total Fouls_New Mexico St. 17, Nevada 15. A_8,074.