After knocking off, then No. 6, Miami in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic semifinals on Saturday, New Mexico State had a chance to play for a championship on Christmas Day.
The Aggies and Southern California were tied 72-72 with one minute to go in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic title game, but Bennie Boatwright’s long 3-pointer late in the shot clock with five seconds left put the Trojans up 75-72 and propelled USC to a 77-72 win over NMSU at the Stan Sherriff Center in Honolulu.
The Aggies (11-3) turned the ball over on the in-bound following Boatwright’s three.
Despite the loss to USC, it overall was a great tournament for the Aggies to get into the winner’s bracket with a win over Davidson on Friday night, then a program-defining win over the Hurricanes on Saturday night and having a chance to beat the Trojans late in the title game.
However, NMSU coach Chris Jans was pretty disappointed following Monday’s loss, but said down the road they may say they gained some momentum during the tournament.
“We don’t get these opportunities to play these type of teams on a neutral court very often,” Jans said. “And when you do, you have to take advantage of it. We could have easily been celebrating a championship right now and we are not. We have to figure out a way to close those games out and execute down the stretch. The coaching staff has to put them in a better position when we can.
“I am sure down the road, we’ll reflect up on it, have a couple days to ponder it and watch the video that we had growth out here.”
Boatwright, an NBA draft prospect, finished with 33 points on 10 of 16 shooting, 6 of 10 from three and seven rebounds and was named tournament MVP. It became Boatwright vs. NMSU’s Zach Lofton throughout the game as the two star players had monster games.
Lofton recorded a career-high six threes on 6 of 9 from behind the arc and scored 28 points, two off his season high. Lofton had four 3-pointers in a row in the first half that got NMSU a 32-31 lead and back into the game.
Both Boatwright and Lofton broke the Diamond Head Classic title game record for 3s, which previously was four.
Jemerrio Jones was close to another triple-double with 13 points on 5 of 15 shooting, 11 rebounds and eight assists. However, like at New Mexico, Jones was cramping at the end of the game and had to sub in and out multiple times in the final four minutes.
AJ Harris finished with 12 points on 5 of 12 shooting.
NMSU had a 72-68 lead with 1:59 to go after a Eli Chuha bucket after Chuha had a steal. But the Aggies, who led a majority of the second half and by as much as seven with 6:43 to go, struggled to score in the final four minutes of the game with only four points during that span as USC’s length gave NMSU problems.
“Just disappointed in myself that I couldn’t help them more and get them in the right position,” Jans said. “Their length and athleticism bothered us as the game wore on, especially in the second half. A lot of credit goes to them. They dug in defensively and they were really good down the stretch on the defensive end of the floor.
“At the end of the day, Bennie Boatwright was too hard for us to guard tonight. He made some shots that I don’t think it would have mattered who was guarding him.”
NMSU got off to a great start, taking a 9-0 lead. But the Aggies struggled against the Trojans’ zone and USC’s front court as the Trojans went on a 21-2 run to take a 21-9 lead.
However, the Aggies weathered the storm and came back to tie the game at 34-34 at halftime.
NMSU finished shooting 51.6 percent (16 of 31) in the second half, and 46 percent (29 of 63) for the game, and 8 of 21 from three for the game. USC shot well the whole game, finishing at 51 percent (26 of 51) and 11 of 21 from three.
However, a big reason why the Aggies were still in the game was their rebounding, outrebounding the Trojans 30-25 with 13 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points. NMSU also forced 12 USC turnovers and turned those into 15 points.
The Trojans finished 14 of 14 from the free throw line while the Aggies were 6 of 8.
“Zach helped us with his offensive prowess today,” Jans said. “He got us back into the game at the end of first half and kept it going in the second half. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the line … we couldn’t get enough post touches and couldn’t score at the line. We had worked for everything, but the last four minutes of the game it just felt like a real struggle for us to score.
“Part of that to blame is me. I have to position them better and help them more. Certainly a lot of credit goes to USC. I thought they really dug in and I thought they did what they needed to do to win that game.”