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Nevada fights to end, but falls to N.M. State

DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer

LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The run is over.

Nevada’s streak of four straight NCAA appearances is history, as New Mexico State used its physical advantage inside to knock off Nevada 83-75 Friday night in the WAC semifinals at the Pan American Center.

Nevada concludes its season at 21-11, and now must sit back and wait to see if it receives an invitation to either the NIT or the first-year College Basketball Invitational. Nevada has put in a bid to host games in both tournaments.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State, 20-13, advances to tonight’s championship game (6 p.m.) against Boise State, a team it beat twice during the regular season.

This one had all the drama and excitement of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. There was give and take throughout as the five ties and eight lead changes indicated. It also wasn’t a game for the weak at heart. The teams pounded on each other like a couple of free-swinging heavyweights.

The physical aspect of the game was the difference, according to both coaches. The Aggies held a whopping 52-25 rebounding edge, including a 23-5 edge on the offensive glass. NMSU turned its 23 offensive rebounds into 14 points.

“New Mexico State was better on the boards, and rebounding was the key to victory.” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “They did a great job on the glass. You can’t give a team that many extra possessions. Rebounding is not just an inside issue. All 10 guys can rebound.

“I’m disappointed for our players. We had a slow start (2-4), but to win 19 of our next 20-something, I was pleased that we battled back. We’ve had a lot of success in making the tourney and in the tourney. We’ll be back (in the NCAAs). I don’t feel our season is over. We deserve to be in post-season.”

Nevada swept the Aggies during the season and also outrebounded them by margins of 40-35 and 33-29, respectively. It was a big topic of conversation between NMSU coach Marvin Menzies and his players.

“We did a phenomenal job in the key areas we look to achieve in every game,” Menzies said. “Specifically today, rebounding. My guys were soldiers, warriors. I’m proud of them for answering the call.

“They (Nevada) are a very good team. Mark (Fox) does a fantastic job. They never quit. They were making 3s at the end.”

Nevada led 33-31 at the half, but lost the lead in the first 2 1/2 minutes when the Aggies went on a 9-2 run for a 40-35 lead with 17:43 left in the game.

Nevada closed to 48-44 on a 3-pointer by Marcelus Kemp, but New Mexico State stretched the lead to 57-44 thanks to a 9-0 run.

The Pack put together its best stretch of the game, a 17-4 run which tied the game at 61 with 4:19 remaining.

Brandon Fields, who was scoreless the first 31 minutes, started the surge with a 3-pointer and Malik Cooke converted a three-point play to make it 57-50. After NMSU’s Martin Iti missed two free throws, Armon Johnson made a basket and two free throws and Demarshay Johnson had a slam dunk to slice the deficit to 59-56.

Herb Pope (18 points, 13 rebounds) scored on a dunk coming off a screen, but Fields, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half, drained two free throws and another three to make it 61-all.

“It (the tying 3-pointer) kept me focused,” Fields said. “It got my confidence up. My teammates told me to keep shooting it.”

Fox said the Pack played well in all facets during that stretch.

“We competed hard (in that stretch), rebounded well and were able to get the first rebound,” Fox said. “We were able to keep fighting back and I’m proud of our competitive nature. We just couldn’t make plays down the stretch (after the tie). We ran out of timeouts and ran out of gas a little bit.”

Jahmar Young missed on the next possession, but Fields stepped on the baseline trying to rebound the ball, and then Pope scored on two straight possessions to make it 65-61.

Kemp, who finished with a team-high 19 points, made it 65-63 with two free throws, but a dunk by Pope, a free throw by Hatila Passos and a tip by Justin Hawkins made it 70-63.

“It’s just preparation and practice,” Pope said. “I had to work harder in practice. The senior guys made a point to me to not joke around as much as I like to. I just wanted to come out with my A game. I was focused on rebounding. We lost both battles on rebounding in both game. That’s what drove me.”

The Aggies flexed their muscles in the first half with a 26-11 edge on the boards, but they managed to score just four points off their eight offensive rebounds. The inability to finish and take care of the ball was critical.

New Mexico State turned the ball over 11 times, which led to nine Nevada points.

“They (the putbacks) were rolling in and out,” Menzies said. “They weren’t bad putbacks.”

Nevada hung tough.

The Pack fell behind 23-17 with 5:03 left in the half, but went on a 15-8 tear to grab a 33-31 lead at the half, which ended on a 28-foot buzzer beater by Armon Johnson to end the half.

JaVale McGee, who was hampered by foul problems in the second half, scored 11 of his 15 in the first 20 minutes.