By Albert Luna
There were Twitter wars, pre-game crowd contests, and 5,000 flautas all promoting the highly anticipated NMSU-GCU matchup on Thursday night. But most of all, there was a game to be played, in which the Aggies were sure to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind by night’s end.
The NMSU Aggies enjoyed a nice 70-50 revenge win and picked their sixth straight win of the year while dismantling the Grand Canyon Antelopes on Thursday night in a battle for first place in the WAC in the Pan American Center. The Aggies came into the matchup riding a five-game winning streak, after their latest home win against UTRGV on Saturday, 92-68.
The ‘Lopes, who came into the battle with a tie-breaking lead of first place in the conference over the Aggies, lost their first WAC game on Saturday to Seattle in Phoenix. The last time these teams met was last month in January, when the Aggies suffered their lone loss of the New Year as well as in WAC play in a game that was a sellout—a first for GCU.
This game also carried a bit of a budding rivalry implication as the ‘Lopes came out in full force with three buses full of ready-to-cheer students. The Aggies, to their own credit had, their biggest student turnout of the year, with at least 1,500 students in attendance on “Fiesta” night, in which all students received free flautas at the entrance.
“We were kind of a little more ready for the game, we heard what they (GCU students) were saying, and we wanted to shut them up,” guard Ian Baker said after the game.
The Aggies started off with a jumper from Pascal Siakam, who attracted a good number of NBA scouts to the contest based off of his previous game. Immediately after the jumper, starting center Jonathon Wilkins went down with a left ankle injury, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be taken out, though he was noticeably playing through pain the rest of the game.
The ‘Lopes got a big boost from their backcourt as they jumped out to a quick 11-8 lead after two hits from downtown from the opposition.
The Aggies, however, also got a boost, from Siakam who had four early sequence points and a couple of rebounds to keep the home team competitive in what was otherwise a shooting slump, a defensive contest between two teams self-described as defensive oriented.
But talent sometimes cannot be contained, as was the case in the half with Siakam, who put up eight points and 10 rebounds. The Aggies got the ball moving a bit more and were able to benefit a great deal as they took a 32-27 edge into halftime.
“I thought we were very unselfish tonight and we recognized what they did to us last time at their place, so we game-planned for that,” said Aggies Head Coach Marvin Menzies.
To begin the second half, the Aggies went on a nice 6-2 run, which was highlighted by four points from Siakam, who was clearly on a mission in this game. The sophomore, as we have seen time and time again this season, delivered in the second half.
Menzies praised Pascal, who was named a finalist for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award earlier today, for his play in the second half.
“He adjusted much better in that second half, he was more comfortable in the block,” Menzies said.
Despite not getting a double-double in the first half, Siakam nearly did in the second. He finished the night with 17 points to go along with 16 rebounds, good for his 20th double-double of the season and to maintain his NCAA tying lead in the nation.
The Aggies showcased a mix up in their defensive strategy also to begin the half, which proved vital for their cause.
“It was just about bringing more energy and breaking them down for the full 40 minutes,” said Baker.
The Aggies used this mixture in defense to completely shut down the GCU offense, allowing just 13 points in the half for their opponent.
Next up the first-place Aggies will take on Utah Valley on Saturday in the second and final game in this two-game home stand, in what should promise to be another exciting matchup. The game will tip off at seven p.m.
If Thursday’s game was any indication as to what a college basketball atmosphere can be like at NMSU, Menzies certainly likes it.
“I thought the fans were great, I hope we can get that kind of turnout every game,” he said.
Albert Luna may be reached at Aluna32@NMSU.edu
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