Wolverines take down WAC frontrunner NMSU 72-68

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Coming off a dismal performance on Thursday, the Utah Valley men’s basketball team bounced back in a big way with a 72-68 victory over the first-place New Mexico State Aggies on Saturday, Feb. 12, at the UCCU Center.

Fardaws Aimaq recorded his Division I-leading 21st double-double of the season, going for 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and three steals. Blaze Nield ran the point with 14 points and six assists, while Justin Harmon added 17 points off the bench. Le’Tre Darthard sustained an undisclosed injury just three minutes into the game and did not return. 

“I was proud of our guys,” said head coach Mark Madsen. “New Mexico State is the cream of the crop in our conference, and our guys came out.”

Following the loss to Grand Canyon on Thursday, the Wolverines held a players-only meeting before Friday’s practice to work out some internal issues, and Madsen was thrilled that his team was taking initiative.

“That’s really a sign of mature players. Players that want to be great, players that want to win, players that want to have the difficult conversations with each other, talk about the elephant in the room, talk about things that are grating on your nerves, and I think we saw some results of that meeting,” said Madsen. 

UVU led wire to wire, with the Aggies tying the game just once at 15. The Aggies shot just 20% from beyond the arc and just 50% from the charity stripe. NMSU’s leading duo of Jabari Rice and WAC Player of the Year candidate Teddy Allen combined for just eight points in the first half before Allen got it going in the second half. 

The Wolverines got the party started early from downtown, draining three of their first five from long range to open the game. Connor Harding and Asa McCord found nothing but net, but Harmon’s three got a friendly bounce before falling. The Wolverines shot 60% from long range on the night.

Both teams were inconsistent from the field in the first half, but the Wolverines were able to get their buckets in spurts to claim the lead at halftime. After the Aggies tied things up at 15, the Wolverines rattled off a 9-0 run, but wouldn’t score for another five minutes. NMSU responded with an 8-0 run of their own to cut the lead down to one with about three minutes left in the half.

From there, UVU was finally able to take the lid off the rim and came back with another 8-0 run to close out the half. Aimaq put the exclamation point on the opening frame with an NBA-range three as time expired to give the Wolverines a 32-23 halftime advantage. 

Across both ends of intermission, UVU stormed out on a 17-4 run to take a game-high 14 point lead, but the Aggies never went away. NMSU cut the lead down to seven at the under-12 media timeout following a transition three from Mike Peake.

The Wolverines pushed the lead back up to 14 briefly, but the Aggies once again had an answer. Allen scored 19 of his game-high 24 points in the second half to aid in the comeback effort. His three cut the lead back down to eight and forced a timeout out of Madsen. 

UVU came out of the timeout with a renewed sense of urgency and responded with a pair of buckets from Harding and Aimaq. NMSU kept hanging around and cut the lead back to seven by the under-4 media timeout. 

Coming down the home stretch, the Aggies were able to make it a one-possession game with a minute remaining in part due to the ineffectiveness of the Wolverines at the free-throw line. At one point, UVU missed three straight free throws, two of which were the front ends of one-and-one situations, that allowed the Aggies to whittle the lead down to three with under ten seconds to play.

With NMSU in the double bonus, Nield intentionally fouled Allen in transition to send the Aggies to the free-throw line. Allen made the first and intentionally missed the second in hopes of securing the offensive rebound, but Aimaq was able to grab the board and ice the game with a pair of free throws on the other end. 

The victory moves UVU to 16-8 on the season and 7-5 in WAC play. NMSU falls to 20-4 and 10-2 in the WAC. If the season ended today, the Wolverines would be the seven seed and forced to win five games to secure the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Moving up to fifth or sixth would earn the team a bye to the second round, and moving up to third or fourth would earn the team a bye to the quarterfinals. 

On the injury front, Madsen mentioned that junior guard Trey Woodbury is close to being game-ready, but is currently weighing his options on returning. Woodbury has missed the entire season, and with just six games plus the conference tournament remaining, is unsure whether to burn a year of eligibility as the Wolverines chase a WAC tournament title. 

UVU heads out on the road for a pair of road games this week, returning to Texas to play Tarleton State on Wednesday, and then returning to Utah to face Dixie State in St. George. Wednesday’s game against the Texans is scheduled to tip-off at 6 p.m. MDT and will be broadcast on ESPN+ and ESPN 960.