SPOKANE, Wash. – For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, there were four overtime games in one day as March Madness officially swung into action. Thursday’s final overtime game was held inside the Spokane Arena where the 13th-seeded New Mexico State men’s basketball team fell in the second round of the tournament, 73-69, to No. 4-seed San Diego State.
NM State stormed back from a 12-point halftime deficit to force the game into overtime. The Aggies trailed by as many as 14 early in the second half and by 10 with under three minutes remaining. But the never-say-die underdogs closed out the second half on a 14-4 run and tied the game at 60 after a 3-point shot by senior guard Kevin Aronis with 5.4 seconds left in regulation.
San Diego State, ranked 11th and 13th respectively in the two major polls, seemed to have the game in hand as it led by seven with under a minute left. But a quick bucket by Aggie senior Renaldo Dixon and a couple of free throws from junior guard Daniel Mullings, who finished with a team-high 18 points after being held to two points in the first half, cut the Aztec lead to one possession, 58-55, with 33 seconds left.
Two free throws by Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Xavier Thames, who had a game-high 23 points, once again pushed the lead up to five, but Dixon answered with another inside basket to make it a 60-57 game with 15.7 seconds left.
What ensued next was a little bit of Aggie luck as San Diego State bobbled the inbound pass and watched as the ball fell harmlessly out of bounds, giving possession right back to NM State.
The Aggies quickly inbounded the ball to their 3-point threat Aronis who fired a 3-pointer with 10 second left. The shot was off the mark, but NM State corralled the rebound and once again swung the ball around to Aronis at the top of arc. This time the Aggie senior sank his final 3-pointer in a NM State uniform with just over five seconds left.
Thames sped across the court and threw a running jumper at the buzzer, but the shot was off the mark, forcing the fourth overtime of the day.
The overtime was a microcosm of the entire game. NM State started off slow as it could not make a bucket during the first half of the overtime. The Aztecs marked the first-five points of the extra session to take a 65-60 lead with 2:48 left. To make matters worse, Aggie center Sim Bhullar fouled out of the game with 3:21 left in the overtime.
NM State didn’t score in the overtime until exactly half of the session had expired, but it was a big shot as Dixon, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds, nailed a 3-pointer, only his fourth of the season, to bring the Aggies to within two at 65-63 with 2:30 remaining.
Dixon’s 3-pointer was followed by an old-fashion 3-point play by redshirt junior Tshilidzi Nephawe that cut the Aztec lead to one, 67-66, with 1:40 left in the overtime. Thames, however, would sink three out of four free throws and NM State would miss an inside layup as the lead grew back to four at 70-66 with under 20 seconds left.
Still, the Aggies did not go quietly and after an Aztec missed free throw NM State had the ball only down three, 71-68, with 6.8 seconds left and one final shot to tie. But San Diego State and head coach Steve Fisher played the fouling card and did not allow the Aggies to get off a 3-point shot by fouling Mullings before he could shoot.
Mullings sank the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, but the Aztecs grabbed the rebound and made their final two free throws to put the game out of reach and end the season for NM State.
The Aggies finish the 2013-14 campaign with a 26-10 record while the Aztecs mark their 30th win of the season (30-4) and move on to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
NM State narrowly outshot the Aztecs from the floor, 40 percent (26-65) to 39 percent (23-59). Shot from 3-point range were also close as the Aggies shot 31.3 percent (5-16) to San Diego State’s 35.3 percent (6-17). Perhaps the difference in the game was free throw shooting, were the Aztecs only missed six shots en route to shooting 77.8 percent (21-27) to NM State’s 60 percent (12-20).
Bhullar finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots while Aronis and Nephawe each added 12 points. Aronis did all of his damage from beyond the arc as he finished 4-of-11 from 3-point land while Nephawe added a team-high eight rebounds.
The Aggies started the game by missing their first three shots from the floor and found themselves in a 5-0 hole early. After a timeout by head coach Marvin Menzies, NM State finally got on the board with a shot in the paint by Bhullar almost four minutes into the game.
An alley-hoop layup by Mullings from a DK Eldridge pass cut the Aztec lead to one at 5-4, but the Mountain West regular-season champs would mark the next five points to take a 10-4 lead with 13:43 left in the half.
Aronis sank his first 3-point attempt of the game to break the San Diego State mini-run and cut the lead in half. On NM State’s ensuing defensive possession, however, Bhullar would get called for his second foul with 12:22 left in the first half. He would sit for next eight minutes-plus.
Consecutive layups from freshman guard Ian Baker and Dixon would cut the Aggie deficit to 12-10, but again the Aztecs answered, this time with an 8-2 run which gave San Diego State a 20-12 lead at the under-eight minute media timeout.
Bhullar returned to the court with the Aztecs still up by eight and almost immediately proceeded to pick up his third personal foul of the game. The ensuing free throws by San Diego State’s forward Skylar Spencer gave the Mountain West members their first double-digit lead at 24-14 with 4:44 left in the half.
NM State tried to cut into the lead as Nephawe marked five points in the final four minutes of the half, but Aztec redshirt freshman Matt Shrigley was a thorn in the Aggie side during the final minute of the half as he sank a couple of shots from beyond the arc to keep the San Diego State lead in double-figures, 32-20, after half number one.
The Aztecs showed why they possess the No. 2 defense in the country as they held NM State to a season-low 20 points in a half. The Aggies could only muster eight field goals in the half, finishing with a 30.8 field-goal percentage (8-26), while only going 1-of-4 from 3-point range, 3-of-7 from the charity stripe and committing six turnovers in the half.
San Diego State didn’t shoot the lights out either as it only sank two more buckets than the Aggies, finishing 38.5 percent from the field (10-26) and 37.5 percent from 3-point land (3-8), but the Aztecs were heavily aided by going 9-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Nephawe had seven points and five boards to lead NM State, but no other Aggie had more than three points in the half. Mullings, the WAC Player of the Year, was held to only one basket for two points. He had twice as many rebounds, four, as points in the half.
Mullings quickly eradicated that statistic at the start of the second half as the junior guard showed why he was named the top player in the conference. Mullings scored nine points within the first four minutes of the final half, leading NM State on a 14-3 run.
Bhullar also had a couple of buckets during the run as he opened the half playing well even with three fouls on his card. After Aronis sank his second 3-pointer of the game, the Aggies had cut the lead to two at 40-38, forcing an Aztec timeout with 13:25 left in the contest.
NM State’s defense also seemed to finally find its rhythm as the Aggies seemed to have a hand in the face of every San Diego State shot after switching to a triangle-and-two defensive scheme. The Aztecs started the half sinking only three of their first 14 shots, including going 1-of-10 during the six-plus minutes of the Aggie run.
Bhullar had consecutive dunks, the last on an alley-oop from Mullings, to keep NM State within two of San Diego State at 44-42 with just over nine minutes left in the game. But the courageous Aggie comeback in the first 10 minutes of the second half seemed to leave the team from New Mexico with nothing left in the tank for the final 10 minutes.
The Aztecs also have a conference player of the year on their roster, and Thames began to show why he was named the best player in the Mountain West, marking three-consecutive baskets to keep NM State at bay. After San Diego State forward Winston Shepard sank a jumper in the lane, the Aggies saw themselves in a 50-42 hole with 7:17 left in the contest.
The Aztecs would once again increase the lead to double digits at 56-46 with just over three minutes left, setting up what would be one of the greatest finishes in NM State basketball history, as the Aggies countered their season-low 20 first-half points with double the amount, 40, in the second half of play.