Texas State embarked on a road trip Jan. 19, winless in its first season in the WAC, and while the Bobcats have won three straight since, the team will face its toughest weekend of competition yet.
New Mexico State University and University of Denver, both 7-2 in conference, come to Strahan Coliseum this weekend as the Bobcats try to dig themselves out of the bottom of conference standings.
“These past couple games in conference, we’ve started going uphill, and we’re progressing and getting better,” said junior forward Corey Stern. “We’ve won three straight on the road, and we’re just trying to play off that momentum and keep it going. Now we can come home and protect our house.”
The Bobcats were down by double digits in both games earlier this year against Denver and New Mexico and could not get back in the mix of things. But recent comeback victories against Seattle University (down by 12) and University of Idaho (down by 17) have given Texas State the mindset anything is possible.
“There was a sense of ‘maybe’ before. We were hoping we could win,” said Coach Doug Davalos. “Now we believe we will win. There’s a big part where our guys think no lead is insurmountable anymore.”
The emergence of junior guard Phil Hawkins has provided a scoring boost for the Bobcats. In the past three games, Hawkins has scored in double figures, averaging 14 points. Since Jan. 19 against UTSA, the Bobcats have been averaging 5.36 more points per game with Hawkins in the starting lineup.
“Hawkins has done a tremendous job,” Davalos said. “It takes any new player in a system time to figure it out, let alone a point guard. A lot of the time, other positions, they can just worry about themselves. But your point guard has to know what the coach wants, where the players are supposed to be, where he’s supposed to be and where he’s supposed to run plays.”
The Aggies won 78-67 in Texas State’s previous meeting with New Mexico State, with sophomore guard Daniel Mullings leading the way with 22 points. Mullings currently leads the WAC, averaging three steals per game.
The Aggies are a force in the paint, holding a conference-high 7.3 rebounding margin over their opponent and recording 56 blocks (6.2 per game).
Denver will be a battle of contrasting forces. The Pioneers rank seventh in the nation in scoring defense at 54.6. In conference play, Denver is averaging 61.2 points per game (second lowest to San Jose State) but is holding opponents to 50.3. The Pioneers are ranked No. 1 in scoring margin at plus-10.9.
Denver prefers to keep the scoreboard low but has a proficient offense nonetheless. The Pioneers are first in the WAC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.5. Denver’s leading conference play in 3-pointers made (8.4) and percentage (.374) makes for a lethal combination that can place opposing defenses in a bind.
Texas State should not be fazed. The team has four of the top six conference leaders in 3-point percentage shooting. Junior forward Joel Wright is ranked first at 52.6 percent and junior guard Deonte’ Jones comes in at third, converting 46.7 percent.
New Mexico State and Denver tipped off against one another Jan. 23, ending in a 53-42 victory for the Aggies. New Mexico State extended its winning streak to seven and halted the Pioneers’ streak at seven. The win marked the Aggies’ longest winning streak since the 2006-07 season.
Denver committed 15 turnovers and was outrebounded 41-24. The Crimson and Whites’ defense held Denver to 0-8 from beyond the arc in the first half and 3-18 for the game.
The many new faces for the Bobcats may be finally starting to gel.
“I’m not blaming the losing streak on anybody … but this is a new situation,” Wright said. “We all came into a new situation. Now we’re winning more, we’re facing adversity more and we’re learning to get along with each other more. All of that stuff plays a part with winning.”