New Mexico State stuns Wolf Pack in WAC semifinals
For the Nevada Appeal
NCAA Tournament dreams die hard.
The Nevada Wolf Pack’s NCAA tournament hopes came to an end Friday night in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament at Lawlor Events Center with an 80-79 loss to the New Mexico State Aggies.
“I’m in shock right now,” Pack forward Luke Babbitt said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s like what Coach (David) Carter told us in the locker room. He said he didn’t know what to say to us because we didn’t think we we’re going to lose.”
New Mexico State (21-11) will meet Utah State (27-6) in Saturday night’s championship game at 7 p.m. (ESPN2) with the WAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line.
“It was a tough loss,” Carter said. “The guys fought hard and battled but they (the Aggies) just wanted it a little more than we did down the stretch,”
The Wolf Pack (20-12), which trailed much of the second half, had one last chance to win the game with 3.8 seconds to play. Armon Johnson’s 3-point attempt from about 30 feet out, though, was wide to the left as the buzzer sounded.
“I was just trying to rush the ball up the court,” Johnson said after taking an in-bounds pass from under the New Mexico State basket from Joey Shaw.
Johnson got the ball and headed up the right side with the clock ticking down.
“I was just looking for an open look,” said Johnson, who had 13 points and 10 assists. “I got it but it just didn’t go down.”
The Aggies, which lost to the Wolf Pack at Lawlor just last Thursday (100-92) won the game on a 12-foot jumper by Jahmar Young with 3.8 seconds to play.
“It kind of went in slow motion for me,” Young said. “I was just happy coach called my number. I wanted to drive up his (the Pack defender) back but when I hesitated he backed off. I just pulled up and hit it.”
Babbitt, who scored a career-high 33 points, had given the Pack a 79-78 lead with 46 seconds to play with a pair of free throws. The Galena High graduate finished the night 10-for-10 from the line.
“This was incredibly tough,” Babbitt said of the heartbreaking loss. “We all feel terrible. This is not what we expected.”
New Mexico State had taken a 62-54 lead with 13 minutes to play on a steal by Young and a dunk by Wendell McKines.
Both teams then spent the next three or four minutes yelling and bickering with the officials as the game turned into a parade to the free throw line.
“Officials aren’t going to make every call you want,” Carter said. “You have to fight through that.”
One of the calls the Pack disagreed with was a Babbitt infraction against Young on a 3-point shot attempt. Young, who scored 15 points, hit all three of the free throws for a 71-66 lead with 6:51 to go.
The Pack, though, kept coming.
Ray Kraemer hit a key 3-pointer from the left corner to cut the Aggies lead to 71-68 with 6:38 to go. Backup center Marko Cukic then converted the two biggest lay-ups of his freshman year, scoring off a pair of feeds from Babbitt for a 75-74 Pack lead with 3:35 to go.
Jonathan Gibson gave the Aggies a 76-75 lead with a lay-up with 1:40 to go but Shaw (13 points) put the Pack back on top, 77-76 with a jumper with 1:15 left.
Aggies coach Marvin Menzies was just happy to be in the game down the stretch on a night when Babbitt was playing so well.
“Luke was Luke,” Menzies said. “We tried a bunch of different things to try to stop him. But he just kept finding new ways to score.
“For us to win on a night when Luke Babbitt was so magnificent, that means a lot.”
The Wolf Pack, much like Thursday night in its tournament-opening 87-71 victory over Idaho, started the game on fire.
Dario Hunt had a lay-up, Babbitt drained a 3-pointer and pumped his fist in a rare outburst of emotion and Shaw hit a pair of free throws as the Pack took a 7-0 lead just 90 seconds into the game.
A minute later, though, the game was tied, 9-9.
The rest of the first half was a roller coaster ride for both teams. Kraemer had a 3-pointer for a 16-13 Pack lead and Gordo Castillo connected on a pair from long distance for a 27-24 New Mexico State lead with 7:10 to go.
Douglas High graduate Keith Olson scored inside twice. He tied the game at 22-22 with a lay-up with eight minutes to play in the half and he hit a short jumper in the paint to cut the Aggies lead to 27-26 with 6:30 to play.
New Mexico State earned its 42-40 halftime lead on the strength of a 7-0 run as Troy Gillenwater had a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer and Tyrone Watson scored inside for a 34-28 lead with 3:49 to go.
Babbitt, who had 18 points in the first half, then went back to work, hitting a left-handed hook, a 3-pointer and a 10-foot jumper from the left side for a 35-34 Pack lead.
Young and Gillenwater hit 3-pointers as the Aggies took a 42-37 lead. Johnson, though, cut the halftime deficit to just two (42-40) with a 3-pointer with two seconds left.
The Wolf Pack, now 15-2 at home this year, and Aggies threw up a combined 69 shots in the first half. The Pack made 17-of-35 (.486) while the Aggies struggled, hitting just 14-of-34 (.412). The Pack, which hit 10-of-18 3-pointers against Idaho the night before, was just 4-of-15 from 3-point range against the Aggies in the first half.
“It wasn’t a great night on offense,” Young said. “But defense wins championships. That’s what we’re here for.”
The Wolf Pack still has a chance at a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) or College Basketball Invitational (CBI) bid. They will find out on Sunday if their season will continue.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see,” Carter said. “This was unexpected. Nobody expected us to lose at home.”