NMSU Men's Basketball Survives Seattle Scare To Advance To WAC Tournament Championship Game

Written By: NM State Athletic Dept.

LAS VEGAS, NV - Being able to play behind and weather the storm during its non-conference slate served well for the New Mexico State men's basketball team as it battle back Friday night after giving up a double-digit lead in the first-half for a gritty 84-79 victory over fourth-seeded Seattle U at Orleans Arena.

With the win, NM State gets the opportunity to defend its Western Athletic Conference Tournament title Saturday night against third-seeded Grand Canyon at 8 p.m. (MT) on ESPNU. The victory also pushed NM State's all-time WAC Tournament record to 28-5, giving the Aggies the mantle for most wins in tournament history by passing UTEP (27-15).

The Aggie (27-5) offense continued to run like an oiled-machine in the first 10 minutes of action, jumping out to an 18-5 lead and forced a Seattle U timeout after three-straight triples from Keyon Jones and Zach Lofton.

The Redhawks (20-13) didn't back down despite going down early, hitting 5-of-6 from the field to cut the Aggie lead to 25-20 with 7:42 remaining in the half. However, the hot-handed Lofton continued his offensive onslaught and knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers from the far elbow to push the Aggie lead back to double-digits, 31-20.

After a three from Johnathon Wilkins pushed the advantage to 34-20, Seattle U got white-hot from the floor and went on a 23-3 tear capped off by a buzzer-beater from Morgan Means to overtake the NM State lead 43-37 heading into the break.

New Mexico State came out focused in the early minutes of the second-half, using a 7-0 run to retake the 44-43 lead at the 18:14 mark – which forced Seattle U to call another timeout. The Aggie offensive blitz continued into the 15:49 media break and led 48-43 behind an 11-0 run to open the second frame.

Seattle U finally got its first basket of the half with 13:05 left to play on a basket in the paint from SU's Aaron Menzies, but not before the Aggies roared to a 13-0 start. A three-plus minute scoring drought coupled with a 6-0 run by the Redhawks cut New Mexico State's lead to 50-49 with 11:54 remaining on the clock.

SU's Josh Hearlihy hit a three out of the media break for the 52-50 lead behind a 9-0 run before the back-end of two free-throws from AJ Harris gave NM State its first point in 4:42 minutes of play.

Down 57-54, an offensive rebound from Jemerrio Jones led to a jump-ball that allowed Harris to drain a triple to tie the game with 8:44 on the clock. A hard drive to the lane and finish by K. Jones tied things up 60-60 after he completed the and-1 opportunity with 7:23 left to play.

New Mexico State's perseverance and experience allowed the Aggies to hang onto that lead thanks to clutch plays down the stretch from Harris and K. Jones coupled with free-throws put the game away.

Lofton finished with a game-high 31 points on 6-of-11 shooting from downtown while Harris chipped in with 16 points and a career-high three blocks to go with three assists, two boards and two steals.

J. Jones broke the WAC Tournament single-game rebounding record set by Boise State's Jason Ellis (21) back in 2005 with his 22 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end, on top of his 12 points. His 22 boards pushed his single-season total to 417, passing Pascal Siakam (396, 2015-16) for third-most in a single-season. The senior is now 19 short of passing Sam Lacey for second-most in a single-season (435, 1968-69).

K. Jones rounded out the group of double-digit scorers for NM State with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting – three of which came from 3-point land.

With the win Friday night, the Aggies are 10-3 all-time in semifinal action at the WAC Tournament and now 3-0 when playing Seattle U…it was also the first time the Aggies and Redhawks faced off in semifinal action since the league's reconfiguration…at the 13:33 mark in the second-half, Eli Chuha pulled down his 500th career-rebound before finishing with 503 on the night…Friday was the 10th time NM State was outshot in a game this season with the Aggies 5-5 on the year in that situation…NM State was able to convert 15 offensive rebounds – six of which belonged to J. Jones – for 19 points to Seattle U's seven…the 24 free-throws made by NM State was a new season-high, besting the previous of 22 set against GCU on Feb. 10.

"Prior to the game, we talked about that it could take 40 minutes ... with the every possession mentality defensively. The rebounding and all the things we are trying to build our program around. At halftime, we revisited that. We said 'it's not a 15 minute game, it's not an 18 minute game; it's not 40 minute game.' It looked like it was going to take all 40 minutes, which it obviously did. We talked about that we needed to reestablish ourselves, which we did. –Aggie head coach Chris Jans

With the win, the NM State men's basketball team will play for the WAC Tournament title for the 10th time in program history against Grand Canyon on Saturday, March 10, at 8 p.m. (MT) on ESPNU. The Aggies are 7-2 all-time when playing for the championship with its losses coming in 2008 and 2016. Kanoa Leahey will have the call in Saturday's championship game while Corey Williams serves as the analyst on the ESPNU broadcast.