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Aggies hoops: Tough loss for NMSU

LAS CRUCES – The final game statistics made Wednesday’s Lobo-Aggie men’s basketball battle seem like a toe-to-toe battle.

New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies wasn’t buying it.

Yes, Menzie’s Aggies matched or even bettered visiting New Mexico in most statistical areas, but the bottom line was a 79-70 loss that hit a rowdy Pan Am Center crowd of 9,184 like a bucket of cold water.

Afterward Menzies looked at the stat sheet with something resembling disbelief.

“It doesn’t look as bad on paper as it was,” Menzies said. “You look at some of the numbers and they’re OK, but I never felt like we had any rhythm offensively. New Mexico always had separation and that kept the fans out of it I think. We never did enough to really let them get going.”

Want positive Aggie stats? No problem.

NMSU (7-3) outrebounded the Lobos (6-1) by one, 37-36, outscored them 24-22 in the paint, did not allow UNM a fast-break point and finished with a 26-12 advantage in bench points. The Aggies even made two more field goals than did the Lobos.

But for the game’s final 33 minutes, UNM never trailed.

Some explanation could be found on the stat sheet, including UNM’s superior 3-point shooting and its 29-18 advantage in made free throws. But Menzies and his players felt like the Lobos’ biggest edges came in focus and effort.

“New Mexico played great defense,” said Daniel Mullings, who paced the Aggies with 16 points, “but a lot of this is on us. We had a lot of unforced turnovers and just too many mistakes to beat a good team.”

Menzies had no trouble citing specific examples.

“Three times we fouled 3-point shooters,” he said shaking his head, “and we gave up big offensive rebounds at critical times. We talk about being fundamentally sound, but that didn’t show up tonight and it’s on me. I’ve got to do a better job.”

UNM gained the upper hand early, which was a terrible scenario for the Aggies. The Pan Am Center was rocking in pre-game warmups with a white-out crowd sporting signs, Lobo-bashing T-shirts and roaring approval when mascot Pistol Pete strung an inflated Lobo from the rafters.

But when the game began, the visitors torched NMSU’s zone defense with four quick 3-pointers. The last, swished by Cullen Neal, gave UNM a 24-16 lead with 10:39 left in the first half.

The Aggies would face an uphill battle the rest of the night.

“Maybe we shot ourselves in the foot by going with (the zone) right from the beginning,” Menzies said. “We were actually pretty good in man-to-man.”

Nor could the Aggies cash in against a UNM zone defense made necessary when Lobo post Alex Kirk picked up two early fouls. NMSU was 0 for 5 from 3-point range in the first half and finished 4 for 19 from long range.

“We wanted to get Kirk out early,” Aggies post Renaldo Dixon said, “but when we did, we needed to do a better job attacking. We didn’t take advantage.”

Trailing 39-29 at halftime, NMSU picked up its aggressiveness and made several runs in the second half. Mullings converted on some early drives and KC Ross-Miller hit the Aggies’ first 3-pointer of the night to cut the deficit to 48-44.

But UNM followed with a 12-3 run that included a Kendall Williams 3-pointer and a monster dunk by Cameron Bairstow. It became a pattern, with the Aggies battling back into contention only to have the Lobos pull away.

It was a frustrating outcome for the Aggies, who swept I-10 rival UTEP this season but have been unable to get over the hump against I-25 antagonist UNM. The Lobos have won four straight and 11 of the last 13 in the series.

“We had a lot of mental breakdowns,” Menzies said, “and didn’t handle the mental ramifications of this game and what it means to this college and this city. Not taking anything away from the Lobos because they’re a very good basketball team. I’m just disappointed in our performance and know we’ve got to get better.”

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