By Albert Luna
The New Mexico State Aggies returned home for the first time in the spring semester to blow out the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros on Saturday night in the Pan American Center, 92-68, in the Lou Henson Classic.
Henson, the legendary Aggie coach who guided the Aggies to the 1970 NCAA Final Four, was honored at halftime on a day that was declared “Lou Henson Day” in the City of Las Cruces. Henson sat on the NMSU bench for the entire game and gave the players a pregame talk as well.
“He came in before and talked to us and I really think he was the key for our success,” says guard Matt Taylor. “He told us to stay focused and that we have a great coaching staff.”
The Aggies came into the matchup looking for their fifth straight win in WAC play, after going 2-0 in their previous road trip that saw them knock off Seattle and Cal State Bakersfield, respectively.
NMSU came out with some stifling defense to open up the game, limiting UTRGV to just three points in the first five minutes of play. The Aggies found themselves up at the first break by nine points, 17-8, in large part due to Braxton Huggins and Ian Baker finding early success with three-point shots.
“We just knew we had to throw the first punch tonight and I thought we did,” says Taylor, who finished with 12 points after suffering a nose injury.
The Vaqueros closed the gap after the next sequence of play, coming within seven points of the Aggies thanks to two straight open transition layups, which prompted Aggies’ Coach Marvin Menzies to call a timeout and talk it over.
NM State continued to expand the lead, with Pascal Siakam proving to be key in a run that lasted virtually the entire second half of the first 20 minutes of play. Siakam, after scoring just four points in the first 10 minutes of the half, had himself a productive last 10 minutes. The Cameroon native scored 12 points and grabbed four more rebounds in that span, nearly collecting a double-double in just one half with 16 points, and nine boards on an efficient 8-12 shooting.
“It’s a part of our system, we like to play through the paint whenever we can,” Menzies says.
Siakam and Jalyn Penne were both also on the receiving end of Ian Baker lobs that resulted in two crowd-raising dunks. NMSU had a 22-point lead, 48-26, going nto the halftime break. The second half started with the Aggies simply not laying off the gas pedal. In the first six minutes, the margin widened to 27, with Jalyn Penne propelling the Aggies with five points in that span. Penne also set a career-high in points, shot attempts, and made shots. The sophomore forward finished the game with 20 points.
“The shots were just falling tonight and I felt that they were all going in,” Penne says.
The Aggies played out the Vaqueros the rest of second half, with the benches clearing essentially midway through the second half.
“I thought we did a good job of taking care of our business and being able to focus on today’s game,” Menzies says.
Looking ahead, NMSU has perhaps their biggest home game remaining of the season, as they welcome in number one in the WAC, Grand Canyon. GCU knocked off NMSU earlier this month in Phoenix in front of a sold-out crowd in a thriller, proving to be the Aggies’ lone conference loss of the season.
“I don’t have to motivate these guys, they know it’s a big game and we are going to work hard,” Menzies says.
The coach also says he would like to see Aggie fans come out and give GCU an atmosphere similar to the one NMSU had to face.
“I think if someone had to go to only one game this year, it has to be this one, we can create the atmosphere of a top-25 team in the nation, we really can.”
The Aggies will face off against Grand Canyon Thursday, February 4 at the Pan American Center.
Albert Luna may be reached at Aluna32@NMSU.edu
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