LAS VEGAS — Texas State predicated its success in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament on its ability to limit fouls and get out to a quick start. Through the first two games of the tournament, the Bobcats never trailed and only put opponents in the bonus twice.
When Texas State met up with New Mexico State in Friday's semifinal round, Doug Davalos' team had to reconsider its strategy.
Nothing fell for the Bobcats at the start of either half and the Aggies' size proved too tall a hurdle to overcome. Texas State watched its shocking run in the WAC Tournament end with a 74-65 loss to New Mexico State inside Orleans Arena.
No one thought the Bobcats, who were underdogs in all three games, would make it as far as they did. Behind a trio of standout performances by junior forward Joel Wright, Texas State manhandled tenth-seeded Seattle University in the play-in round and then upset the second-seeded University of Denver Pioneers.
"We just came in here to prove a point," said Wright, who broke a tournament record with 31 made free throws. "We were picked last, dead last, in everything — even when we were zero and zero. That's what motivated our guys."
Wright made sure his portion of the statement was loud and clear. One could even say Air Jamaica (Wright's nickname) took flight.
Despite laboring throughout the night defending the Aggies' 7-foot-5 freshman center Sim Bhullar and sitting for extended periods of time due to foul trouble, Wright put up 17 points and 11 rebounds. Wright, who became the sixth Bobcat to score 600 points in a season (first since 1978-79), finished the tournament with a composite 65 points — on 61.1 percent shooting — and 27 rebounds.
"Joel, to me, was the best player in this tournament," said Davalos, whose contract expired at the end of the season and is 92-120 in seven years as head coach. "He did everything he could in his power."
Wright and his teammates, however, were undone by slow starts in each half against New Mexico State.
Through the first four minutes of the first and second half, Texas State shot a combined 2-of-14 from the field and turned the ball over four times. Even though the Bobcats ran their sets, putting up on-target jumpers against the Aggies' zone was another thing entirely.
"They basically have the size of an NBA frontline out there," Davalos said. "They have incredible length and that bothers shots. I do think we missed some shots we normally hit, but I think they had a lot to do with it."
New Mexico State made sure to punish Texas State as it struggled. By the first media timeout, the Aggies led 7-3 and they opened the second half on a 10-0 run to blow the game open.
"We just do what we always try to do, which is throw the first punch," New Mexico State forward Renaldo Dixon said.
Even though the Aggies led by as many as 16 points, the Bobcats clawed back within five on two occasions. Both were triggered by junior guard Deonte' Jones, who scored 16 points and drilled four 3-pointers.
"I felt like we were going to take control of the game, but we were guarding a 7-5 player," Jones said. "It was tough, very tough."
Bhullar put a stamp on the game with a put-back dunk late in the second half. At that point, Texas State trailed by 12 and Cinderella already lost her shoe.