New Mexico State outscored UTEP 16-3 in the final 7:05, rallying from a nine-point deficit to beat the Miners, 55-51, before a season-best home crowd of 10,729 on Saturday at the Pan American Center.
The Aggies (19-9) earned a split of the season series with the Miners (14-12) while winning their ninth straight home game.
UTEP was ahead 48-39 when C.J. Cooper drained a three pointer with 7:06 to play. The Miners managed just five field goal attempts the rest of the game, making one, while turning the ball over five times.
“You have to give the Aggies a lot of credit. They changed defenses late, with 4:40 to go and [down] 48-39, and went zone and I thought it really impacted the game,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We were prepared for the zone. We just played against it for 40 minutes at Southern Miss [on Wednesday]. We worked on it in practice. We knew that they played zone in the last three minutes in El Paso [on Nov. 28).
“We made three key turnovers. The ball went through Konner Tucker’s hands on the sideline on an inbounds play. They got McKenzie Moore on a travel, which is always a judgment call. Bohannon threw one away. So we didn’t get opportunities at the rim to shoot the ball. They went down and converted.”
NMSU went on an 8-0 run, cutting the UTEP lead to 48-47. Cooper, who scored all nine of his points in the second half, nailed a big three-pointer with 2:22 to play, pushing the Miner lead to four (51-47). But that turned out to be UTEP’s final basket of the game.
The Aggies’ Kevin Aronis sank a three pointer 17 seconds later, then buried a jumper with 1:12 left to put his team ahead for good at 52-51.
“You’ve got to give Aronis credit, he did a great job of utilizing speed on his cuts,” Floyd said. “Give their screeners credit for screening him out on the baseline cuts. We knew what was going to happen in the final two minutes after he made the first one. We couldn’t get to him. We had Jacques Streeter, our fastest guy, trying to chase him and the kid made big shots. He had great separation. They hit him in time and rhythm and he made big plays.”
After McKenzie Moore missed a three pointer, the defense broke down and Konner Tucker fouled Terrel de Rouen with 24 seconds on the clock. He made both free throws for a 54-51 lead. Floyd said fouling wasn’t a part of his team’s strategy.
“We were going to take it down to the final 10 seconds. There was a nine and a half second differential on the clock,” Floyd said. “Then a foul occurs, and we’ve got to look at stringing a game out or looking at the three-point line.”
UTEP rode the hot hand but Cooper missed a three pointer with eight seconds left, the team’s final chance at forcing overtime.
“C.J. is a guy we were trying to get a look for three,” Floyd said. “We didn’t set a screen late that we had drawn up during a timeout. We didn’t get a great look, and I credit the defense for that. We were not trying to foul there.”
The two teams played to a football-esque 17-14 halftime score. The 14 points were the fewest scored by the Miners in a period since the final game of the 2002-03 season at Tulsa. UTEP scored 13 first-half points in that game.
The Miners shot 25 percent in the first half and NMSU shot 22.7 percent. Fortunately both teams heated up over the final 20 minutes, with UTEP connecting on 63.6 percent of its shots and NMSU 52 percent.
For the second straight game, UTEP placed only one player in double figures as Moore scored 10 points. Aronis scored all 11 of his points in the second half, and Bandja Sy added 10 points. Massive 7-5, 355-pound Sim Bhullar was a factor inside with six points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. He established a school single-season record with 60 rejections.
“They are a terrific team,” Floyd said of NMSU. “It’s not going to surprise me if they figure out a way to get themselves into the NCAA Tournament. When you rebound it like they do and have a couple of guys who can make shots on the perimeter and a guy that forces you to game plan like the big guys does inside, they’ve got a lot of tools.”
The Miners put together a game effort for 33 minutes while playing in the most hostile environment they’ve encountered all year, but couldn’t make winning plays at the end.
NMSU took a 103-102 lead in the series ledger in a rare February matchup between the I-10 rivals.
“It’s not a game that hurt either team because it was very spirited,” Floyd said. “You can see why you like playing that game in November because of how it rallies the fans. It carries your home crowds into December and January. It was great to see the people back in this arena. I didn’t see them the first two years I was here. They did a great job helping their team and willing the team in the final four and a half minutes of the game.”
The Miners will play four more C-USA regular season games, beginning on Wednesday when they host Houston at 7 p.m.
Senior Associate Athletic Director/Communications and University Relations