Mav paint patrol: Ashbaugh fills in for sick teammate with best game of season

Photo by William Woody—Lance Fite soars to the basket for two of his nine points Thursday in Mesa State’s 76-62 victory over Western New Mexico. The Mavs struggled without Michael Bear, but were able to get by the Mustangs.

Justin Ashbaugh was in search of ice.

One or two ice bags weren’t going to do the trick Thursday night.

“I need a whole ice bath,” said Ashbaugh, who led the Mesa State College men’s basketball team in scoring two years ago, before he blew out his left knee, then tore the meniscus in his right knee.

He’s been playing about 16 minutes a game, averaging a little more than two points a night for the No. 14 Mavericks this season.

Thursday, with sophomore post Michael Bear out with the flu, Ashbaugh’s minutes doubled, and his points were right back where they were when he had two good knees.

“When I had two good knees and didn’t feel like I’m 40 years old, I actually felt 22,” he said with a grin after scoring a season-high 17 points to help the Mavericks outlast Western New Mexico 76-62 at Brownson Arena.

“My shot hasn’t been there, so I’m letting things come to me, do the small things and points will come to you as long as you’re doing everything else.”

The senior played 30 minutes, starting at forward but moving into the post to spell Lance Fite. He scored most of his points in the paint, cutting hard to the basket and posting up.

“They were finding me,” he said. “I was getting the ball down low and my guy was helping off me, so I was wide open. I’ll take them if they’re there. That’s the least work I’ve had to do.”

With the Mustangs (7-10, 6-4 RMAC) doing their best to keep Michael Dominguez under control, and the Mavericks (17-1, 11-0) one man down in the paint, Mesa State struggled to put the game away.

Jase Herl, though, made sure Mesa State got the ball enough, grabbing a school single-game record 20 rebounds and scoring 16 points in the win.

“I thought he got tired at the end and missed some that he could have had; he just couldn’t elevate,” Mesa State coach Jim Heaps said. “He played a lot of minutes (33). I played him too many and probably (Michael) Dominguez too many, but without Bear we got into just a ... it’s funny, just one guy gets us into a weird rotation.

“I thought Justin Ashbaugh played great. I was so proud of him.”

Dominguez got free enough to score 21 points, eight in the final 21⁄2 minutes as the Mavericks pulled away.

Herl had 10 rebounds in each half.

The Mavericks, ranked No. 1 in the Central Region, used a 7-0 spurt at the end of the first half to lead 35-26, with Herl hitting a pair of free throws, Ryan Mortensen a 3-pointer from the top of the key and Ashbaugh a bucket inside off nice passes from Dominguez to Herl to Ashbaugh.

The Mustangs, though, wouldn’t go away.

Ashbaugh scored back-to-back baskets five minutes into the second half and Herl scored a driving layup for a 45-37 lead, but it was a two-point game, 47-45, with 11:26 to play

Dominguez gave Mesa State just enough breathing room when Herl drove the paint and kicked the ball back out for an open 3-pointer and a 57-52 lead with just more than seven minutes to go.

Up 64-60 after Herl hit a free throw, Dominguez tipped in his own miss and the Mavericks outscored Western New Mexico 12-2 in the final 2:30 to remain perfect in the RMAC.

“We have a target on our back and everybody is going to come in with their best game,” Ashbaugh said. “We have to step our game up to get better. It’s good for us.”

Heaps knows there will be more games like this one. As long as players like Ashbaugh come up with games like Thursday, though, Heaps will take an ugly win.

“I don’t think we win tonight,” he said, “if we don’t have Justin Ashbaugh.”


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