Freshman Herb Pope set career marks with 18 points and 13 rebounds as New Mexico State returned to the WAC tournament championship game, beating Nevada 83-75 on Friday night.
Justin Hawkins scored 23 and the third-seeded Aggies (21-13), fueled by a noisy homecourt advantage, advanced to meet No. 4 Boise State for the title. The Broncos beat Utah State in the other semifinal.
Pope scored six straight points in a key late run, stretching New Mexico State's lead to 67-61 with 1:52 remaining.
It started with Pope scoring a tip-in after a miss by Jahmar Young, then Fred Peete found the lanky freshman for a short jumper. After Kemp made two free throws, Pope was left unprotected for a riveting dunk that energized the hometown crowd.
New Mexico State won the WAC tourney last year in Las Cruces, ending an eight-year NCAA tournament drought.
In earning the right to defend their title, the Aggies likely ended Nevada's hopes to extend a five-year NCAA run. The WAC, No. 20 in league RPI, probably won't get more than the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the tourney champ.
Marcelus Kemp scored 19 points to lead the second-seeded Wolf Pack (21-11) while Armon Johnson had 17, JaVale McGee added 15 and Brandon Fields 10.
Pope turned in the best game of his young career, helping the Aggies to a whopping 52-25 rebounding advantage.
The freshman had to fight the NCAA clearinghouse at the start of the season but eventually won his eligibility and played his first game in mid-January. He signed with the Aggies over Texas, Memphis, Maryland and other schools.
Whatever it took, Pope's teammates were glad to have him on the court. The Aggies continued to celebrate after the final horn, as the cheers of excited fans echoed off the rafters at the Pan American Center.
Hatila Passos scored 10 points for NMSU, contributing to a strong defensive effort against McGee, Nevada's 7-foot-1 inside presence. McGee had just five rebounds and was slowed in the second half with four fouls.