Wendell McKines acknowledges the crowd after scoring 27 points with 14 rebounds to lead New Mexicon State over Louisiana Tech. (AP)
LAS VEGAS -- As Wendell McKines stood on the ladder after snipping off his cut of the championship net, he stuck his hand to his ear and decided to sink in the adulation just a little bit longer.
But it wasn't "MVP" being chanted by all of the New Mexico State faithful crowded on the floor. The chant morphed to "Wen-VP," and was perfectly appropriate after McKines lifted the Aggies back to the NCAA tournament.
"All I can do is smile," McKines said.
McKines scored 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and New Mexico State claimed its third Western Athletic Conference tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a dominant 82-57 win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday night.
The Aggies (26-9) will make their 19th NCAA tournament appearance and second under coach Marvin Menzies to go along with winning the conference tournament in 2010. They'll enter the tourney having won nine of 10, with depth, size and athleticism that will make them a dangerous lower seed.
"With all this euphoria, I feel like we can play with anybody right now, obviously," Menzies said. "But the reality is we need to get a favorable seed and a favorable team to match up with against."
There's even the chance they might only have to make the 3 1/2-hour drive up Interstate 25 to Albuquerque where early round games are being played.
"We don't talk about it much, but we were kind of dreaming about it a little bit," Menzies said.
For the second straight game, the Aggies built a double-digit lead within the opening minutes. But unlike its narrow semifinal win over Hawaii, New Mexico State never let Louisiana Tech back in. After the Aggies took a 14-4 lead, the Bulldogs trimmed the deficit into single digits only once.
And it was physical domination that served as a tuneup for the NCAA tournament. The 25-point margin of victory was the largest in a title game in WAC tournament history.
"They physically overpowered us at almost every position and they did it for 40 minutes," Louisiana Tech coach Mike White said. "If they have a couple of guys step up and make jump shots in the NCAA tournament, they'll be a tough out."
McKines capped a stellar tournament where he was voted MVP by making 12 of 16 shots, finishing one point off his career high, and recording his 17th 20-point game of the season. He was lauded with chants of "MVP, MVP" from Aggies' fans after knocking down consecutive 3-pointers in the final 3 1/2 minutes and checking out then was the guy every Aggies fan was seeking out on the floor for cellphone pictures with the championship trophy.
Daniel Mullings and Tyrone Watson both added 12 points for the Aggies, who outrebounded La Tech 46-27 and scored 56 of their 82 points in the paint.
"In 2010, it was, `Oh my God we're going to the tournament!' Now it's like, `OK we know what to expect in the tournament and what to do to win,"' McKines said. "We know we can play with anybody."
Trevor Gaskins led Louisiana Tech (18-16) with 24 points, but the Bulldogs shot just 33 percent and made 3 of 18 3-pointers a day after hitting their first seven 3s in their upset of Nevada in the semifinals. Raheem Appleby added 15 points, but no other Louisiana Tech player scored more than four.
After finishing second in the conference during the regular season, the expectation was the Aggies would need to solve regular-season champ Nevada if they wanted to get back into the NCAAs. But those plans were thrown off when Louisiana Tech stunned the Wolf Pack in the semifinals. Instead of Nevada's athleticism, the Aggies faced a Bulldogs squad they beat twice during the regular season -- almost by identical scores -- and where NMSU held size and style advantage on the interior.
The Aggies used all of that size and length to make the Louisiana Tech's first title game appearance as a member of the WAC miserable. On the defensive end, Mullings smothered Appleby, while McKines, Watson, Hamidu Rahman and Tshilidzi Nephawe made sure shots were challenged inside and offensive rebounds were few.
The Aggies scored the first eight, and 14 of the first 18 points, then later in the half used a 10-2 spurt to take a 20-point lead when McKines followed Laroche's miss. Half of McKines 12 points in the first half came off offensive rebounds. With 3 minutes left in the first half, McKines had already recorded his 19th double-double of the season and the Aggies scored 34 of their 38 first-half points in the paint.
New Mexico State extended its lead to as many as 31 in the second half on a day where both the Aggies and New Mexico claimed NCAA bids in the same town hours apart.
"I care for this group a whole lot," Menzies said. "They are a special, special unit. They are the child that gives you all that drama, but it's all worth it."
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