LAS VEGAS — Even with three different coaches in three years, New Mexico State keeps making NCAA Tournament appearances.
In the offseason, Chris Jans took over an already successful Aggies program after Paul Weir left for instate rival New Mexico. One year earlier, Marvin Menzies left for UNLV.
Jans got things organized during the season and rolling late as his Aggies once again won the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship Saturday night with a 72-58 victory over upstart Grand Canyon at the Orleans Arena.
Zach Lofton scored 21 points, AJ Harris had 20, and Jemerrio Jones added 15 points and 18 rebounds to help New Mexico State win its fifth straight WAC Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
“We’re going dancing,” Jans said. “This was quite the journey. Hired a great staff and had to go to work everyday. Summer and fall were rough. There was lots of back and forth. We had to get on the right page. This group likes each other.”
Jones was named tournament MVP. He had a tourney record of 55 rebounds in three games, while the previous record was set in four games with 53 by Boise State’s Jason Ellis in 2005.
“I thought Zac would get (MVP),” Jones said. “I don’t care about that. All I want to do is win.”
The top-seeded Aggies (28-5) have won eight of their 13 appearances in the WAC Tournament.
“I don’t care what seed they give us,” said Jans, whose program has lost its last nine NCAA Tournament games, dating back to 1993. “This time, we have an experience bunch. They seed us where they seed us. Our guys are going to fight and be a tough matchup for anyone.”
Alessandro Lever had 19 points to lead third-seeded Grand Canyon (22-11). Keonta Vernon had 17 points, while Casey Benson had nine points and seven rebounds for the Lopes, who were seeking their first NCAA Tournament appearance in its first year of postseason eligibility after being in Division I for five years.
“It wasn’t our night. It wasn’t our time.” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “I’m really, really proud of them. We’ve been waiting five years. It was a great year for our guys. We played real hard. We know what it’s like to be here. Now there’s something at the end (of the season).”
LOPES RALLY, AGGIES RALLY: After leading 36-22 early in the second half, the Aggies’ lead was cut to 50-47 with 9:14 left. But New Mexico used a 6-0 run to keep distance from the Lopes the rest of the way.
The Lopes built their largest lead at 16-12 as both teams struggled offensively for the first 16 minutes. The Aggies responded with a 22-6 run, aided by four 3-pointers, two by Lofton. That run carried early into the second half.
“To credit them, we had a defensive breakdown (late in the first half),” Majerle said. “You have Jones, you have Lofton, and you have Jones going to get every rebound. Hats off to them. They have some really good players.”
The Aggies swept the regular season, including winning at Grand Canyon 74-70 exactly one month ago.
New Mexico State: The Aggies are now 18-2 all-time at the Orleans Arena. .. Lofton also made the WAC All-Tournament team. . Lofton was ecstatic in the postgame press conference. “I’m so happy I came here,” he said. “I didn’t expect us to be that good. We had new hurdles, everything worked out.”
Grand Canyon: The Lopes started 1 of 9 from 3-point range. … Before Saturday, the Lopes defense has been key to their run, ranking fourth in the country in effective opponent field goal percentage at 43.7 percent. … Lever and Vernon both made the all-tournament team. … Grand Canyon may get an invitation from a smaller pay-to-play tournament. “It’s something we have to talk about,” Majerle said. “It will be more for our young guys.”
New Mexico State: The NCAA Tournament.
Grand Canyon: Wait for an invitation to a smaller tournament.