BOWLING GREEN, Ky. " Playing with poise and confidence in the second half, the New Mexico State mens basketball team advanced to tonights Sun Belt Conference semifinals with a 78-61 against Arkansas-Little Rock at E.A. Diddle Arena Sunday. NMSU (20-8) will play Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. The game can be seen live in Las Cruces on Comcast Channel 5.
The Ags made 16 of 29 shots in the second half and 17 of 21 from the charity stripe. "We got the ball inside to James Moore, we passed the ball quickly and we hit open shots," point guard Jason Fontenet said. "We got into a good rhythm. We were focused." NMSU also played better defense in the second half, limiting UALRs shooting percentage to 36.4 percent after the Trojans (18-12) shot 48 percent in the second half.
"We knew they could shoot and we had to make it as tough as we could on them," Fontenet said. The game was tight throughout until the Ags took control of the game with just under nine minutes to go. NMSU trailed 49-46, then went on a 10-0 run to take the lead for good at 56-49. Fontenet and Kelsey Crooks each drained treys, while Brandon Mason hit four free throws. Mason was 8 of 8 from the line.
"NMSU is so tough to stop, especially when it is shooting well," Trojans coach Porter Moser said. "Crooks hurts us all the time, Mason made some strong moves to the basket and Fontenet hurt us." NMSU maintained a 7-11 point lead for a good portion of the final minutes. Moore and Mason each hit key baskets, while the Ags hit 12 of 14 from the free throw line in the final 3:44 of the game. "We were never able to get key stops," UALR guard Mark Green said.
"NMSU is a very, very good team." UALR never got closer than five, 56-51, in the final 8:43 of the game. "NMSU really defended us well," Moser said. "I thought Jason Fontenet defended us well on the perimeter. We had 19 turnovers and we havent been around that total in a long time." Moore led four Aggies in double figures with 20 points, followed by Mason with 17, Crooks with 12 and Fontenet with 10. "They had good balance," said Moser of the Ags.
"James is tough to stop because he can hurt you so many ways and tonight he hit 3 or 4 jumpers with a hand in his face." The first half saw UALR take a 28-25 lead after 20 minutes. The Ags made just 10 of 30 shots, while UALR hit 12 of 25, including 4 of 10 from 3-point range. Nick Zachery led UALR with 11 points, including a 43-footer right before the halftime buzzer. He finished with 26 on the night, but hit just 3 of his last 12 shots. Moore led the Aggies with 10 in the first half on 5 of 8 shooting. "We were a little tight in the first half and we missed some good looks," Fontenet said.
"Fortunately we forced 12 turnovers and that was big." Said Moser: "We had 12 first half turnovers and that hurt. Jibrahn Ike, one of our guards was hurt with a shoulder injury and he tried, but couldnt go long." NMSU and Western Kentucky will play for the second time this year. The Ags beat the Hilltoppers 92-82 in Las Cruces on Jan. 25. Last year, the two teams met in New Orleans in the semifinals with Western Kentucky winning 73-72 on a buzzer-beater by Patrick Sparks. WKU beat Florida International 71-60 on Saturday night in a quarterfinal game.
"Were going to have to bring our best," Fontenet said. "Western Kentucky has been playing really good and were just going to have to be focused and ready to go." NMSU got 17 points from a pair of New Mexico products Sunday. Sophomore guard Allen Haynes hit three crucial treys, two of which came in the second half.
Roswell native Gary Jackson came off the bench and scored eight points and had four rebounds in a critical stretch of the second half, while starter Chris Jackson sat with foul trouble.
Gary Jackson scored five points in a row to put NMSU up 44-42 midway through the second half. "Our bench was a big reason why we won," NMSU coach Lou Henson said.