By Albert Luna
New Mexico State admittedly has a young team that needs experience playing in big games. Sunday should serve as a good wake-up call.
The Aggies faced off against their in-state rivals, the UNM Lobos, Sunday night in the Pan American Center, keeping things close, but slipping at the end in an eventual 83-74 defeat. The Aggies were fresh off their season-opening 91-69 victory over Houston Baptist on Friday night, a game that saw forward Pascal Siakam pick up right where he left off from last year in recording a 28-11 double-double, at one point outscoring the entire Huskies team in the second half alone.
The Lobos came into Las Cruces sporting a 1-0 undefeated record of their own after their season-opening victory, also on Friday night, in Albuquerque against Texas Southern, 86-57. This would also be the team’s last game before both take part in some early season tournaments, the Air Force Classic for the Aggies and the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge for the Lobos.
The opening half of play started with high anticipation on display, as Aggie fans made it known they were expecting a tough, physical game. The opening bucket by Braxton Huggins set the tone for an opening sequence of play that yielded four total Aggie baskets, including a quick bucket from Siakam.
NMSU struggled initially to close out on the three-point shooters, allowing two quick shots from the Lobos. A timeout on the floor had the scoreboard favoring the Aggies, 13-7, just four minutes into the game. NMSU got an early lift from Braxton Huggins, who jumped out with eight quick points in the first nine minutes of the contest, while also providing four rebounds.
Huggins sat down shortly in the half but returned to the floor to provide 10 points in all in the half.
“I thought that our guards played big for us tonight,” says Aggie Head Coach Marvin Menzies. “Braxton and Ian have really improved that three-point shot.”
New Mexico State did most of their early damage from the line as they could only garner a 29 percent shooting average from the floor. NMSU allowed the Lobos to get the line early and often, including giving up a pair of and-ones.
The game took a quick turn for the Aggies when the Lobos threw a 1-3-1 half-court defense at the Aggies, who responded with an essential halt in their scoring. The Aggies garnered two straight turnovers and some ill-advised shots in the process. However, like any zone, you must either shoot your way out of it or score inside. Ian Baker chose the former.
Baker hit three three-pointers, including one after absorbing the contact, to keep the Aggies competitive during a stretch in which UNM made their inevitable run.
“Coach didn’t really tell us a specific strategy on stopping the zone,” says Baker. “We just kind of went out and played the game.”
Baker ended the game with 19 points overall.
The Lobos gained momentum heading into the break, however, with guard Elijah Brown hitting an acrobatic shot as time expired. New Mexico State went into the break on the wrong side of 39-38.
The Lobos showed tenacity to open up the second half, scoring five quick points to put NMSU in a 44-38 hole in less than 30 seconds. Matt Taylor stopped the bleeding after Huggins was able to dive for a loose ball and assist the Taylor-layup. The Lobos called timeout, up 44-40, with 18:34 left in the game. However, the Lobos would open up their largest lead of the game shortly after that, 53-45, which was highlighted by the play of UNM’s Cullen Neal (one three and a floater) during the run.
The Aggies got to work from there, scoring some nice baskets from Siakam and Huggins, who had a nice reverse layup after pump faking a three. A scary moment ensued when UNM’s Devon Williams seemed to collapse after a defensive sequence. Both coaches came onto the court as the crowd was at a noise standstill. Williams was taken off the court by stretcher 15 minutes later.
However, as play resumed, the Aggies fell victim to yet another UNM run, this time doing it with a lineup that has played little as a collective unit. The Aggies were able to cut it down to a manageable seven points after a pair of Tanveer Bhullar free throws.
The more than 6,000 people in attendance got into the game after a rim-rattling Jalyn Pennie dunk that put NMSU within five. Siakam then scored a nice hook shot to bring the Aggies within three. That was as close as they got.
UNM scored an and-one on the next trip down to bring their star player, Elijah Brown, a Butler transfer, to 31 points on the night.
“I thought that Brown was just on fire tonight and we could not contain him,” Menzies says.
The head coach also says his lack of wing defense stability needs to be addressed going forward.
“We’re just so young that we need to really get down and defend the ball,” he says.
The Aggies were unable to even buy a bucket in the last minute of play, with shots by Baker, Siakam, and Huggins simply rimming out.
“I thought that we didn’t execute down the stretch as we would have liked to, but again that is on the coaching staff,” Menzies says.
The Lobos went on a 5-0 run to close the game, officially defeating the Aggies and remaining undefeated in the process.
“This wasn’t Aggie basketball,” Menzies says. “It’s hard for me to swallow and that is my responsibility.”
A press conference took place after the game.
“There’s always something about non-conference schedule,” Menzies says. “I don’t know what is, but I just wish we could have won for the fans. I love this city.”
Despite the loss, Menzies says he thinks his young team can build off their mistakes.
“We’re going to sit down and watch film and I think the guys will be able to see what they did wrong,” the coach says. “We have to get ready for Tennessee Tech.”
The Aggies will next be in action on Wednesday versus Tennessee Tech in the opening game of the Air Force Classic. Tipoff is set for seven p.m.
Albert Luna may be reached at Aluna32@NMSU.edu
Make sure to follow Round Up Sports’ Official Twitter for live game updates: @RoundUp_Sports