LAS VEGAS — Wendell McKines led five New Mexico State players in double figures with 22 points, and the Aggies built a 20-point lead before holding off numerous Hawai‘i rallies in the second half for a 92-81 win over the Rainbow Warriors in the Western Athletic Conference semifinals on Friday night.
New Mexico State (25-9) will play for an NCAA tournament bid in Saturday night’s final against either top-seeded Nevada or No. 5 seed Louisiana Tech. The Aggies reached the conference finals for the third time since 2008.
The second-seeded Aggies blitzed the Warriors at the start, jumping out to 17-0 and 22-2 leads in the opening moments. Hawai‘i trimmed the deficit within single digits by halftime and got as close as 61-60 with 10:35 left but could never pull in front.
Shaquille Stokes led No. 6-seeded Hawai‘i (16-16) with 21 points and Vander Joaquim added 17.
Hernst Laroche added 18 points for the Aggies, including a crucial four-point play midway through the second half when Hawai‘i appeared to have a chance at taking the lead. Tshilidzi Nephawe added 15 points, Tyrone Watson scored 13 and Daniel Mullings had 12 points and 10 rebounds for New Mexico State, which will have a chance at its second NCAA bid in the last three seasons.
And the Aggies advanced to the finals on the strength of a blistering start that could not have gone any better. They hit 9 of their first 16 shot attempts and forced five turnovers before Hawai‘i even got on the board when Joaquim scored underneath with 15:11 left to make the score 17-2. The Aggies’ lead grew to 22-2 when Nephawe converted a three-point play with 13:58 left in the half.
Instead of folding, the Warriors — who played the tournament without second-leading scorer Zane Johnson, who didn’t make the trip from Honolulu due to injuries — made the Aggies work for their spot in the finals.
While Joaquim found himself open underneath off penetration from Hawai‘i’s guards, Stokes began to find his shot from the perimeter, and the Warriors slowly chipped away, cutting the deficit down to six on the strength of a 14-3 run.
Down 47-38 at the break, Hawai‘i hit its first three shots of the second half and cut the Aggies’ lead to 48-44 with 18:22 left, the closest the Warriors had been since the opening seconds of the game.
NMSU stretched the lead back out to nine, but the Warriors would not go away. Joaquim’s three-point play with 12:16 left cut the deficit again to four, and after Bandja Sy scored in the lane for the Aggies, Garrett Jefferson scored on a drive to the basket while being fouled. His free throw cut the Aggies lead to 61-58 with 11:38 remaining, and moments later the lead was down to a point as Hauns Brereton hit a baseline jumper.
But Hawai‘i’s Jeremiah Ostrowski made a critical mistake at the defensive end, going too aggressive on his close out and hitting Laroche as he released a 3-pointer. The basket was good, and the rare four-point play pushed the lead back to 65-60 with 10:10 left.
The Aggies’ lead grew back to eight, only to see Hawai‘i make another surge and cut it to 76-73 with 4:40 left on Trevor Wiseman’s rebound basket. Joaquim was called for his fourth foul at the other end, and Watson hit two free throws. After Nephawe blocked Stokes’ drive, Mullings scored in the lane to give the Aggies an 80-73 lead with 3:42 left, and the Warriors never got closer than six.