UTRGV's Uche Dibiamaka drives the lane during a Western Athletic Conference game against the New Mexico State Aggies on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso. Courtesy Photo | New Mexico State Athletics

The UTRGV Vaqueros lost to New Mexico State 69-51, dropping their third straight Western Athletic Conference game in five days Tuesday afternoon at an empty Don Haskins Center on the campus of UTEP in El Paso.

The loss marks the fourth in the last five games for the Vaqueros, who were playing their fourth contest since the unexpected death of men’s basketball head coach Lew Hill on Feb. 7.

“It’s been a very emotional two or three weeks just trying to get the guys mentally focussed enough to get back on the court,” UTRGV interim head coach Jai Steadman said. “We’re just so happy that they’re wanting to continue to play basketball. We’re trying to win and we’re trying to do things the right way.”

The Vaqueros started off strong and battled back and forth with the Aggies in a defensive stalemate for the opening 12 minutes of the ball game.

UTRGV pulled ahead to take a 15-12 lead, but quickly fell behind and never caught back up after New Mexico State closed the first half on a 19-4 run to carry a double-digit lead into intermission.

The Vaqueros entered halftime shooting 31.6% from the field and 22.2% from deep and committed 11 turnovers that directly led to 18 points for New Mexico State.

UTRGV played a much stronger offensive second half tallying a 12-of-30 shooting clip from the floor, but struggled in the battle on the boards against the Aggies.

New Mexico State ended the game with a 44-32 edge in rebounding against the Vaqueros, which included 19 offensive rebounds for the Aggies that led to 16 second-chance points.

“It was offensive rebounds, I think they had 11 at the time, and second-chance points because we were stopping them on defense,” Steadman said. “But that’s typical New Mexico State. That was a major part of our scouting report: stopping them one time and not allowing those second-chance points. … We didn’t hit some shots that we normally hit and then they came down and hit a couple. It’s just basketball.”

UTRGV’s Anthony Bratton elevates for a layup during a Western Athletic Conference game against the New Mexico State Aggies on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso. Courtesy Photo | New Mexico State Athletics

Four Aggies scored in double figures led by guard Jabari Rice, who tallied a game-high 16 points and eight rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting. Center Jeff Otchere led UTRGV in socring with 11.

The loss locks the Vaqueros into either the fifth or sixth seed in the upcoming WAC Tournament in Las Vegas, which pencils in the team for a first-round matchup against either California Baptist or New Mexico State.

The defeat also marked the third straight game that UTRGV was without redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea, the team’s leading scorer.

Steadman said Rhea had returned home to be with his family in Houston and added that he will not be available for the Vaqueros two-game regular-season finale against Tarleton State.

“We’ve talked almost every day. I just think it’s better if he goes his way and we go our way,” Steadman said. “It’s so hard with Coach (Hill). … Everybody’s different and I’m hugging and holding my guys here. They’re angry and they still want to win for him, so there are still a lot of emotions.”

UTRGV will return to Edinburg to play its final WAC series of the regular season against the Tarleton State Texans beginning at Bert Ogden Arena on Friday night for Coach Lew Hill Tribute Night.

The Vaqueros will return for Game 2 against the Texans at UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday night with both games scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch