LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Nevada's up-and-down season took a significant step forward on Thursday night.
Coming off a horrendous 15-point loss to Boise State at home last weekend, Nevada took its game on the road and knocked off New Mexico State 87-78 at the Pan American Center.
Nevada improved to 3-2 in WAC play and 11-7 overall. New Mexico State dropped to 4-2 and 10-11.
"It (the win) meant a lot," said Nevada senior Marcelus Kemp, who scored 17 points. "New Mexico State is a great team, especially at home. We were very patient on offense."
"We beat a good team," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "Every league game counts the same. It was a good win to get. We've had a lot of young nights, and tonight we showed that we have learned from several of them."
It certainly made up a little for the conference-opening road loss to San Jose, 62-60 back on Jan. 10.
"You could say that," Kemp said. "We expect to win every game, though. Now we're going to Louisiana and try to get another one."
The key to this one was that Nevada played very well once it got a lead, did a decent job of handling the Aggies' pressure and shot 56 percent from the floor, including 64 percent in the second half.
Also, Nevada seemed to play with a little more urgency than the Aggies.
"We had a challenging test which we failed based on our inability to rattle them offensively," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. "We tried to change defenses, used different types of pressure, and Mark's team did a phenomenal job shooting the ball. They made challenging shots and shots on the run. They played their roles.
"We weren't ready to play with the type of energy to beat a capable team like Nevada. It's partially my fault. I have to find a way to make them ready. They played like they hadn't lost their last game, and we played like we were looking ahead to our next game. Nevada's guards played well and shot the ball well."
Kemp had his usual solid scoring game, and Brandon Fields stepped up to lead the Pack with 21 and freshman Armon Johnson added 20. The three guards were 21 for 37 combined from the floor. Johnson has scored 20 or more three straight games.
For the first 9-plus minutes, both teams struggled to find the basket, combining for 9-for-31 from the floor. JaVale McGee was a force inside at the defensive end, blocking three shots, including two by NMSU freshman Herb Pope. McGee finished with 12 points and four blocked shots.
"He (McGee) blocked some shots, changed a couple (more) and made a couple of shots," NMSU forward Justin Hawkins said. "He did what a big man is supposed to do."
Nevada finally broke loose with an 18-5 run in a five-minute stretch to grab a 31-18 lead before settling for a 36-25 advantage at the break.
Lyndale Burleson (8 points) started the barrage with a 3-pointer to give Nevada a 15-13 lead, and Hatila Passos drained a free throw to make it 15-14. Fields, who scored 12 in the first half on 5-for-8 shooting, knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner and then followed with a steal and lay-up to make it 20-14. McGee hit a lay-up, and then Fred Peete and Martin Iti scored to cut the deficit to 22-18.
Johnson scored on a floater in the lane, McGee drained two free throws, David Ellis followed in a Johnson miss and Kemp rifled in a 3-pointer to complete the surge.
New Mexico State turned the ball over four times, went 0-for-3 and missed two free throws .
"We were getting stops defensively," Fields said.
There was a little offense, too. Fields, in fact, scored the Pack's final five points of the first half to make it an 11-point game.
The impressive thing about the second half is that the Pack played better with a lead than it has all season. Nevada actually built on its lead, and did it with McGee, who was such a force inside early on, relegated to the bench after picking up his third foul with 17:03 left.
Nevada outscored the Aggies 17-11 in that five-minute stretch to get the lead up to 59-42 with 12:43 left. The Pack got contributions from Fields, Armon Johnson, Burleson, Kemp and Demarshay Johnson.
New Mexico State stepped up the pressure and trimmed the Nevada lead to 70-60 with 5:52 left in the game. Jahmar Young (19 points off the bench) scored three buckets in that span and Pope (12 points) drained a 3-pointer.
The Pack stormed back with eight straight points to stretch the lead to 18 points, its biggest lead of the night.
Kemp started the surge with two free throws, and after the Aggies missed two shots at the other end, Fields slipped a pass to Demarshay Johnson, who scored on a dunk.
The Aggies missed again on their next trip down the floor, and Fields made two free throws after being fouled by Martin Iti. The Aggies' center was clearly frustrated when he fouled Fields, because he thought he'd gotten hammered at the other end.
Fields stopped Hawkins on the Aggies' next possession and drove the length of the floor to score for a 78-60 lead.
The Aggies continued to scrap, going on a 12-4 run to get the deficit down to 10 with less than a minute to go.
"I thought we were pretty solid (against their pressure)," Fox said.
"We worked on that all week in practice," Kemp said. "We knew where the open spots on the floor would be."
Nevada was efficient when it broke the press and got into its half-court game. Most of the Nevada miscues against the pressure came in the backcourt or in transition.