By Dan Eckles
SAN JOSE, Calif. (March 21)-The five-game winning streak and season came to end for the New Mexico State men's basketball team in an NCAA Tournament second-round game. Atlantic-10 champion and No. 4 seeded Saint Louis proved too much for the WAC Tournament champion and No. 13 seed Aggies, who were saddled with a 64-44 defeat in the Midwest Region contest.
“I told the guys, as the days go by the pain subsides,” NM State coach Marvin Menzies said. “They'll be able to handle it and hold their heads up high. They're WAC champions.
“We just got beat. We got beat by a better team, a team with more experience. That's just the way it went.”
Despite a sluggish offensive first half and facing a 13-point halftime deficit, NM State (24-11) still showed some life early in the second half. Saint Louis swingman Dwayne Evans dropped in a layup four minutes into the second half that gave SLU a 37-23 lead, but the Aggies had plenty of fight left.
An 8-0 Aggies’ outburst was capped by a Remi Barry 3-pointer with 13:53 left in the game. That trimmed the Billikens lead to 37-31. The tournament foes traded the next two buckets to a 39-33 score.
That's when the tide turned against NM State. Saint Louis (28-6) scored 12 of the next 15 points, forging ahead 49-34 with nine-plus minutes remaining in the tournament tilt.
NM State stopped the bleeding briefly. It kept the margin to 14, trailing 53-39 with seven minutes to go.
Unfortunately for NM State, it could get no closer the rest of the way. Saint Louis scored the next seven points to push its lead to 60-39. That was the largest lead the Billikens got.
NM State outscored Saint Louis 5-4 through the final four minutes of the game, for the final 20-point difference.
The 44 points was a season-low for NM State as was its 27.9 shooting percentage (17-of-61). Additionally, the Aggies made just 2-of-16 3-point tries.
“We missed a lot of shots,” Menzies said. “And those were shots we usually make. It just wasn't meant to be.”
Still, Bandja Sy was an offensive bright spot for NM State. He finished with a team-high 17 points. Unfortunately for NM State, no other player had more than six in the scoring column.
“Part of it is on us,” Sy said. “Their guards got into us, and they're a good defensive team.”
Evans posted 24 points for Saint Louis, which has won 15 of its last 16 games, to lead all scorers.
The first half was a rough one for NM State. The Aggies managed just four points through the first 9:17 of the game. Daniel Mullings got a runner to fall for the Aggies at the 10:43 mark of the first half. That bucket pulled the Aggies within five, 11-6.
The two teams traded buckets, leaving the NM State crew down 13-8 with just under nine minutes to go in the first half.
Saint Louis started to take control from there. The Billikens ripped off an 11-4 run in the next three minutes, a stretch capped by a Cory Remekun dunk, extending the SLU lead to 24-10.
Saint Louis got a 3-pointer from Cody Ellis with 51 seconds to go before halftime. The 15-point margin was the widest of the first half but the Aggies got a runner from Terrel de Rouen with 30 seconds still left before the break, leaving the scoreboard to read 29-16 at the half.
NM State struggled in the first 20 minutes thanks to a combination of solid Saint Louis defense and porous shooting. The Aggies made just 8-of-31 shots in the first half (25.8 percent), none from beyond the arc. Saint Louis wasn't considerably better. It made just 11-of-28 first-half field-goal attempts, but three of those were treys, and the Billikens also made good on 4-of-5 free throws, four more than NM State, to help account for the 13-point halftime gap.
“I thought we could've been a little more patient early in possessions to get guys more touches,” Menzies said. “I didn't think we handled their pressure real well from the guard position. But we've got two sophomore point guards, who didn't play at all last year, for all intents and purposes. But they'll get better.”
NM State had a tough time stopping Evans in the first half as he made 7-of-11 shots and had 16 first-half points.