LAS CRUCES, N.M. - New Mexico State fought off a torrid second-half rally by Utah State to claim the WAC men's championship, 72-70, Saturday night at the Pan American Center.
New Mexico State earned the conference's automatic NCAA bid, and will find out its fate today. The Aggies will be making their 17th NCAA appearance.
Not a bad comeback from a 6-win season two years ago. NMSU won 16 last year in coach Reggie Theus' first year and the team won 25 this season.
"I knew when I came here that we had a team if we played harder than everybody else, we'd win games," Theus said. "It's been a hard road, and we've had only two players reach the dance (Justin Hawkins and Martin Iti).
"I told our guys when they were up big that they would come back."
Utah State, which trailed by 14 early in the second half, kept whittling down the NMSU lead, closing to a basket twice in the final minute.
Jaycee Carroll trimmed the NMSU lead to 68-66 with 1:39 lead, and then Johnathan Gibson scored to get NMSU a 70-66 lead, but USU center Stephen DuCharme scored on a lay-up to make it 70-68. With 12 seconds left, Ted Knauber drained two free throws for a four-point lead.
Utah State's Durrall Peterson missed a 3-pointer, but Jaycee Carroll scored on a putback to make it 72-70. NMSU tried a long downcourt pass, but it went untouched, and Utah State got the ball under the New Mexico basket.
Carroll inbounded the ball, and then worked his way out to the 3-point line, but his shot was short. "It's a play we run a lot," Carroll said. "I did not get a great look at the basket, and I also faded away instead of going straight up. Sometimes it goes in and sometimes it doesn't."
Justin Hawkins, who led NMSU with 20 points, was named MVP. Elijah Ingram, who also made the all-tournament team, finished with 18. Carroll and Chaz Spicer, both from Utah State and Nevada's Marcelus Kemp also were honored.
WOMEN: BSU 49, NMSU 46
A key 3-pointer by Jackie Lee and a bucket by Amanda Stewart plus a free throw by tournament MVP Jessica Thompson carried the Broncos (24-8) to a come-from-behind win and the school's first-ever conference tournament championship.
"I'm incredibly excited about this win and the chance to be able to represent the WAC in the NCAA Tournament," BSU coach Gordy Presnell said. "This was a great game and has been a great year for us.
"It is a great feeling. I have coached many teams throughout my life, but I have never been a part of a team that is so completely diverse, starting with how they act, in the classroom, to race and the culture they come from. Even through all that they are close knit. They truly believe they are one, a whole. One for all."
New Mexico State, seeded seventh, went on a 15-6 run to take a 25-18 lead at the half. Sherrell Neal, who scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, had eight of her points in that span.
Neither team shot the ball well in the first half. Boise failed miserably to get many clean looks inside and shot just 17.2 percent. The Aggies weren't much better, hitting 29 percent from the field.
Behind the play of Tasha Harris, who scored 10 of her 13 in the second half, the Broncos stormed back.
Harris gave Boise State a 43-42 lead when she converted a three-point play with 6:57 left. Neal scored to regain the lead at 44-43, but Lee nailed a 3-pointer for a 46-44 lead. The Broncos never trailed again.
"At halftime we talked about being passive and that if we were going to make an impact we needed to be aggressive, especially towards their zone," Harris said. "I started to penetrate the zone and I figured they were going to double down on me, and then I would be able to kick out to the shooters. But they didn't double down, and so I just went with what they gave me."
Boise State's second half run didn't surprise NMSU coach Darin Spence.
"We knew Boise would make a run, and they did," Spence said. "They are a real good team and we were too for three days.
"All year long we knew we were working to give ourselves a chance, and I'm proud that we did that this weekend. I thought we competed well for three days."
Neal, Harris, Cecilia Russell-Nava of NMSU and Nevada's Dellena Criner joined Thomspon on the all-tournament team.
•Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com or 881-1281