Seattle U's season ends at WAC tournament

As Thursday night's first-round WAC tournament game between Seattle U and New Mexico State made its way down the stretch with the 7th-seeded Redhawks trying to hang onto a lead over the 2nd-seeded and two-time defending champion Aggies, two questions came to mind: First, could SU actually pull off the upset? And second, where was this SU team all season?

The Redhawks ultimately lost the lead and the game, 70-68, putting an end to the program's fifth season back in Division-I with a 13-17 record.

For most of the night, SU outplayed New Mexico State. They held WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings to just one field goal while forcing him into four turnovers. They had the Aggies on the ropes.

The Redhawks led by two at halftime, and after an Isiah Umipig three-pointer with 10:30 remaining in the game, held a six-point advantage and realistically seemed ready to take down the champs.

But then the Aggies went on an 11-0 run sparked by Mullings, DK Eldridge and 7-foot-5 giant Sim Bhullar to take the lead. Eldridge's three from the right corner appeared to be the dagger, putting NMSU up by nine with just under four minutes to play, but SU wouldn't go away.

With 15 seconds left, Umipig hit an off-balance three to bring SU within one point. New Mexico State was able to shave valuable seconds off the clock before SU could foul, and Eldridge's two free throws with six ticks left put the Aggies up by three. Rather than allow the Redhawks to tie the game on one shot, the Aggies fouled D'Vonne Pickett Jr. on the floor with 3.9 seconds on the clock. Pickett made his first free throw, missed his second on purpose, but William Powell's putback attempt didn't go down as time ran out.

"It was a tough, hard-fought game from beginning to end, and it's a shame that either team had to lose at the end. I am extremely proud of my guys and how they competed," Seattle U coach Cameron Dollar said. "We played pretty good defensively and contested some shots. Offensively, we did a good job of continuing to move. Their guards do an effective job of applying pressure on the perimeter, but we were able to challenge them in all facets of the game tonight.

The story of the game was SU's speed in the backcourt against New Mexico State's size in the frontcourt.

Umipig, the 6-foot point guard who finished the regular season second in the WAC in scoring (19.3 ppg), dropped a game-high 25 points on Thursday with five threes. Pickett, a 6-foot point guard playing in his final game for the Redhawks, added 10 points and six assists.

Bhullar, the largest man in college basketball, led NMSU with 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. The Aggies' other center, 6-10 Tshilidzi Nephawe, put up 15 points and eight boards.

The night's other intriguing storyline was the mere fact that the game was so competitive and that SU came so close to winning.

The Aggies are what we thought they were. A unanimous pick by the media and a near-unanimous pick by the WAC coaches in the preseason to take the conference crown, they are 24-9 overall and finished with a 12-4 conference record. Mullings was the preseason pick to win WAC Player of the Year, and he officially claimed the trophy last week. Bhullar was expected to be a game-changer, and he's been dominant over the last two weeks in particular.

The Redhawks, meanwhile, came into the WAC tournament as the conference's clearest example of an underachiever.

On paper, Seattle U was good enough to be picked to finish second in the WAC preseason coaches' poll, the only team other than NMSU to get a first-place vote. But after a promising nonconference slate, the Redhawks fell off. They lost five of their last six regular-season games to finish 5-11 in the WAC, tied with Texas Pan-American and Cal State Bakersfield for the conference's worst record.

The Seattle U team that nearly knocked off New Mexico State on Thursday didn't seem like the same SU team that lurched through the season. Of course, had the Redhawks mimicked their Thursday night performance more consistent during the season, they wouldn't have had to worry about drawing New Mexico State in the first round of their conference tournament.