Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis likes how his team has grown up through the course of this season.
Thursday night his squad took another step forward, keeping its composure, while getting 26 points from Tommy Gunn and 14 from William Pippen in a 70-68 win against New Mexico State in the Pan American Center.
The Blue Raiders (8-10, 4-2 Sun Belt) hit 5 of 6 from the free-throw line in the final 1:43 to hold off the Aggies.
NMSU (11-5, 2-3) had a final chance to win the game but Jason Fontenet's 3-pointer from about 35 feet was off the mark as the final horn sounded.
"We knew we had to play a good game to beat Middle Tennessee," Ags coach Lou Henson said. "We didn't shoot well and Middle Tennessee made some big shots. They were also able to break us down defensively too many times. And they took care of the ball. They only had 13 turnovers."
The Aggies shot just 40.4 percent for the game from the field, 25 percent from the 3-point range land and missed 11 of 32 free throws.
"We were aggressive on offense, but we just couldn't make enough shots," Henson said. "We just have to try and keep getting better."
NMSU trailed 32-29 at halftime and 39-31 just two minutes into the second half after Middle Tennessee scored seven straight, five by Gunn.
But then the Aggies battled back with a 10-2 run as James Fontenet hit for five points and James Moore hit for three. Moore led the Aggies with 24 points on the night.
However, the Blue Raiders kept their focus and built the lead back up to seven, 53-46 as six different players found the basket.
Then the Aggies appeared once again poised to break the Blue Raiders' will with an 8-0 run capped by a Kelsey Crooks triple.
But as before, Middle Tennessee regrouped and eventually took the lead for good at 61-59 on a pair of free throws by William Pippen with 4:28 left.
"I respect Middle Tennessee because they kept their composure when we made a couple of big runs at them," Moore said. "I thought maybe we had them a couple of times, but they kept making some big shots."
Pippen was especially huge down the stretch as he scored six straight at one point as both teams kept exchanging baskets.
The closest NMSU got was 67-66 after Jason Fontenet hit two free throws with 39.5 seconds left.
But Gunn hit two free throws with 11.2 seconds left to push the lead back up to 3, 69-66.
NMSU could have gone for three but instead Moore scored on a dunk with 5.5 seconds left. Then Middle's John Humphrey closed out the scoring with a free throw with 4.1 seconds left setting up Fontenet's final chance.
"We were able to make some clutch plays when we were down," Gunn said. "We didn't lose focus of what we wanted to do. We just hung in there and played tough. We knew NMSU would make some runs, we just had to weather them."
Gunn had 15 of his 26 in the second half to lead the Blue Raiders.
"Tommy and William are very good," Jason Fontenet said. "Both of them made some tough shots, some of the toughest I've seen. William has improved a lot from last year."
The first half saw Middle Tennessee play solid defense as it took a 32-29 lead into the halftime break.
The Aggies shot just 37 percent from the field, as they trailed by as many as nine, 29-20, in the opening half.
NMSU managed to go on a 9-3 run at the end of the half to pull within three, as Moore hit for six points.
"We weren't sharp early," Jason Fontenet said. "We need to start playing better and coming out with more intensity. We can't wait until the second half to play better."
Fontenet had 11 as the only other Aggie in double figures.
"We need to have more people contribute," Henson said. "We need our seniors to play well. You are not going to be good unless your seniors play well."
Two of NMSU's seniors that started Thursday struggled as center Chris Jackson had just three points in 15 minutes, while Brandon Mason had just five points and three turnovers in 31 minutes. Mason was averaging double figure points entering Thursday's contest.
NMSU won't catch a break Saturday as the league's defending champion Western Kentucky comes to the Pan American Center.
"It's tough to lose anytime," Moore said. "We need to come back and get a win Saturday and play better."