Thursday night, the Aggies played their best game of the season and also got back in the race for a spot in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament with a 81-76 win against Middle Tennessee at the Monte Hale Arena.
The Aggies are now 9-9 overall and 3-4 in league play. It was the second straight win for NMSU in the Sun Belt.
Middle Tennessee falls to 11-7 and 3-2. "We needed to win this one. We can't miss the Sun Belt Tournament," NMSU guard Allen Haynes said.
Only the top eight teams make the tourney, set for March 6-9 in Bowling Green, Ky. After four-straight league losses, things looked bleak for NMSU. After Thursday's win against the Blue Raiders, which had led the Sun Belt Eastern Division entering Thursday, NMSU has renewed hope.
"We've been looking for a game like this," NMSU senior forward James Moore said. "We've been playing hard, but we hadn't been executing like we had hoped."
Thursday night, the Aggies put things together on offense and also made some critical stops late on defense.
New Mexico State shot 60.9 percent from the field for the game, hit 8 of 18 3-pointers and took care of the ball.
"We haven't been shooting the 3-pointer like we want to," Moore said. "But tonight we did and that helped us a bunch."
Moore led NMSU with a game-high 24 points, 18 in the second half. His two free throws with 5.3 seconds left in the game sealed the win. Guard Allen Haynes came off the bench to score 13, followed by Kelsey Crooks with 12 and Duane John with 10. All eight Aggies that played scored on the night.
"We played hard, we made some key shots all night," NMSU coach Lou Henson said. "Everyone contributed something tonight. We need to get some wins. We're getting better." The game was tight all evening as neither team led by more than eight.
New Mexico State led 68-60 with 5:16 left after a Moore steal and layin to cap a 6-0 run. But then the game got real close. Middle Tennessee guard Mike Dean helped key Middle's comeback, hitting two 3-pointers and two free throws in between to pull the Blue Raiders within 76-73 with 53.6 seconds left. Moore and forward Robert Frazier kept NMSU on top with eight points between them.
After NMSU's Byron Davis hit two free throws, Dean drained another triple with 15.3 seconds left to pull the Blue Raiders within 78-76. Dean scored 18 of his 22 in the second half and hit all five of his 3-pointers. Several of those 3-pointers were with Aggies closely guarding him. "He's a shooter and I give him all the credit for making some of the shots he did," said Haynes, who guarded Dean for part of the night. "He learned how to shoot well."
With the Aggies barely holding on, Crooks hit 1 of 2 free throws with 14.6 to give NMSU a 79-76 lead with 14.6 seconds to play.
Then the Aggies made the game's biggest defensive play. The Blue Raiders went for the tie, but guard Tommy Gunn was trapped near the Blue Raider bench and was stripped by Moore, giving NMSU the ball back with 5.3 seconds left. Moore iced the game with two free throws.
"I was the first option on the play," said Gunn, who had 18 points. "New Mexico Sate made a good play on the ball." Said Henson: "We thought about fouling, but there was too much time left on the clock. We just wanted to make sure we guarded people and didn't give up the 3-pointer."
A resurgent Aggie offense hit the hardwood in the first half. The Aggies made 16 of 26 from the field, 6 of 10 from 3-point range and had 11 assists as they led 42-38 at the break. The first half went back and forth with eight lead changes and four ties.
The Aggies got balance as all eight players that saw action scored.
John netted eight points on 4 of 8 shooting, while Haynes came off the bench to spark the Aggies with eight points, six on 3-pointers. New Mexico State ran its offense well, as freshman point guard Byron Davis had five assists, while Crooks had three.
Crooks and Moore each added six points in the opening half. The Aggies got a lot of good looks at the offense either via open 3-pointers, cuts to the basket or on fast break attempts. Neither team led by more than five points. The Aggies scored the final five points of the half to take the lead, the final three coming on a Gary Jackson triple.
New Mexico State turned the ball over just seven times, but Middle Tennessee was better, turning it over just once. Gunn, the team's leading scorer at over 17 a game, hurt the Ags with 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting. The Blue Raiders also made a perfect 7 of 7 from the line.
"We played smart and we were patient on offense," said Davis, who had seven points and seven assists. As a team, the Aggies had 18 assists on the night. "We've been playing better offense," Davis said. "We started playing better in the second half against Western Kentucky last Saturday and it's carried over into the last two games. We are executing better."
The Aggies shot better than 50 percent for the second straight game. New Mexico State shot 50 percent in Monday's win against Florida International and shot 56 percent in the second half in last Saturday's loss to Western Kentucky. "We didn't play very good defense," Gunn said, "and you can't do that against a quality team like New Mexico State. They deserved to win. They made big plays."
The Aggies are off until Thursday when they host Denver in the Pan American Center. Notes: Moore has made 17 of his last 18 free throws...NMSU is now 5-1 all-time against Middle Tennessee...Davis' seven assists tie his season-high set against Western Kentucky...Haynes has scored 32 points in the last three games.