BUFFALO, N.Y. — Johnny McCants keeled over before he walked into the locker room.
He didn't walk right into the visitor locker room at the KeyBank Center like he usually does after a loss. The sixth-year, redshirt senior forward needed a minute to collect himself after he walked off the court for the final time, after New Mexico State fell to Arkansas 53-48 in the Round of 32. He momentarily held back tears.
He couldn't hold back all of them in his final postgame press conference 10 minutes later.
"I played my heart out every possession," McCants said. "There's going to be possessions where I mess up, where I have bad possessions, but I played my heart out. I played my heart out for the team, my family, the fans. I mean, I just love basketball. I love my team."
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McCants' 16-point, 12-rebound, two-assist, two-block and two-steal performance didn't lead the Aggies to their first Sweet 16 unofficially since 1992 and officially since 1970, but it punctuated his college career with the exclamation point NMSU fans have come to expect from the winningest Aggie in program history. McCants closes his career with four Western Athletic Conference regular-season championships, four WAC Tournament championships, four NCAA Tournament appearances and was a starter on the first Aggie team to officially win a Tournament game since 1970.
NMSU's Tournament wins in 1992 and 1993 were vacated by the NCAA.
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"He will be an Aggie legend for the rest of his life," head coach Chris Jans said. "It's like a movie. Local kid ends up playing for his hometown college, one of the leaders on the team that won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years."
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But all movies have to come to an end. This one just lasted a little longer.
McCants chose to come back to NMSU for an unprecedented sixth season after the 2020-21 COVID-19 season ended in heartbreak for the Aggies. NMSU fell just short of reaching the Tournament when it lost to Grand Canyon in the WAC Tournament championship game. McCants could have chose to test the professional waters, but he decided to use the additional year of eligibility the NCAA granted winter-sport athletes last season and make one final run at an NCAA Tournament appearance.
His movie had unexpected twists and turns. The Aggies lost their third game of the season by 27 points, then won 11 straight games and didn't lose for nearly two months before suffering their worst conference loss under Chris Jans. NMSU climbed back into first place in the WAC before his girlfriend, Samantha, gave birth following a home victory over Seattle.
And through it all — good, bad and ugly — was McCants, ready to do it with that same cheeky grin.
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"He does it with a smile on his face, and I just told him before he (joined the postgame press conference) that I can't wait to help him," Jans said. "I can't wait — it's going to be easy to help him. I can't wait to help him for as long as he'll allow me to help him both on the court and off the court. He is a special kid."
McCants ran through the list of people to thank for his NMSU career — his family, his teammates, the fans, and Jans for "taking me in." McCants was originally recruited by former head coach Paul Weir, and Jans previously remarked there was a time early in his tenure that he wasn't sure how McCants would fit in with the program.
McCants adapted, and turned into a community figure unlike any Las Cruces has seen.
"He is the epitome of what you would want in your student athlete," Jans said. "Just his approach, his work ethic, his passion, but he enjoys it too."
His career didn't have the fairytale ending of being part of a March Madness Cinderella team that danced its way into a Sweet 16, Elite Eight or Final Four. He previously said a dream ending to his career would be standing on a stage with confetti raining down in New Orleans while he hoisted a national championship trophy above his head.
But he still managed to give it an ending a generation of Aggie fans will remember.
NMSU's last official Tournament win in 1970 came before some members of this year's coaching staff were born. No player on this year's roster was alive to see the Aggies' last unofficial Tournament win in 1993.
He tried to almost single-handedly will the team to even more history, but he came up short. He led NMSU in scoring, rebounding and fouls drawn, which included four charges. He was the only Aggie to shoot better than 45% from the field and took advantage of his opportunities when Arkansas double teamed redshirt junior guard Teddy Allen, the team's leading scorer.
But Jans said this year's team — the one McCants helped lead — will be remembered different from other Aggie teams he's had.
"We won a game in March Madness," Jans said. "That's probably what I'm going to remember the most."
That, and McCants, the player he has so frequently described as a "warrior" — one of the biggest compliments Jans can give a player.
McCants' next legacy, his professional legacy, will still be basketball-oriented for a time. Jans has said he thinks McCants is capable of playing professionally at some level, but both acknowledge basketball won't last forever. McCants has been more oriented on making sure he is financially stable to provide for his young family and being the best father possible.
But he'll approach his next chapter the same way he approached this one.
"Wherever I go, just continue to play my heart out," he said.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Johnny McCants' NCAA Tournament performance secures his Aggie legacy