By: Derek E. Gonzales
NMSU head coach Paul Weir is already accomplishing things that his predecessor struggled with. Weir knocked off his first Mountain West opponent in his second try in a 78-70 win over the Air Force Academy Wednesday night in the Pan American Center.
Marvin Menzies went 2-15 in last 17 games against Mountain West Conference teams, with both wins being against UNM, but the Aggies found their offensive groove that evaded them through most of their first seven games of the season. Wednesday night’s win was the first for NMSU over a Mountain West school since NMSU defeated San Diego State during the 2001-02 season.
A starting lineup change brought forward Eli Chuha off the bench into the starting lineup and put him at the center position, and the offense had an easier time scoring early. After scoring just 20 points in the first half at San Diego in their last game, NMSU eclipsed that mark with a Sidy N’Dir dunk with 6:42 left in the first half to tie the game at 21.
Air Force (5-3) runs a Princeton-style offense that has the team shooting 40.5 percent from three, and they shot 5-for-12 from behind the arc in the first half, with Ryan Manning leading the way with 10 points (2-of-4 from three).
“They (Air Force) are eighth in the country in three-point percentage, so I knew going in that we would have to defend the three-point line coming in,” Weir said. “But when you do that, it will open up back-door cuts and lanes. It is really difficult, but our guys fought through. We were just trying to speed up the game to our pace, and we did that over enough stretches during the game to obviously win.
Ian Baker struggled through the first half, shooting just 1-for-7 for two points, but N’Dir picked up the slack for the NMSU backcourt, scoring ten points. The Aggies (6-2) were getting outrebounded 19-14, and it has been an issue all season for NMSU, and it plagued them against an Air Force team that is not really known for their size. Air Force went into locker room up 31-27.
Walk-on guard and Las Cruces native Joseph Garza saw his first action early in the second half, and his three on the right wing gave NMSU a 44-40 lead and put life into the Pan American Center crowd. After the answer by Falcon forward Hayden Graham, Jemerrio Jones came back with another three. As a team, NMSU shot a much-improved 34.6 percent from behind the arc, hitting nine threes, led by Garza and N’Dir with three apiece.
As the score tightened to a 69-68 NMSU lead, Garza was on the floor for the Aggies, and he hit a corner three-pointer to give the Aggies a four-point cushion. For Garza, he has played a major cog in the Aggies 6-2 start, but it has not been a surprise to Weir.
“I cannot say enough about Joe Garza,” Weir said. “He was nominated to be a team captain by his teammates for a reason. As much as I have tried to change the culture, Joe Garza has been just as much a part of that culture change as anything. He’s amazing. He cares about the jersey he wears.”
N’Dir and Jones led the Aggies in scoring with 15 points each, and Garza had 11 while Chuha had 10. N’Dir left the game in the second half with an apparent lower body injury, and Weir did not have an update on the severity. The Aggies will continue their non-conference slate on Saturday evening when they welcome the Long Beach State 49ers into the Pan American Center at 7 p.m.