Albuquerque, N.M. • If it seemed too good to be true, it was.
Utah State had descended into the Pit with confidence, holding the No. 25 team in the country at arm’s length. The heavily favored Lobos were stymied at every turn by a turnover, or a stop, or a timely basket by Preston Medlin. The second half started waining, and Utah State felt a shocking upset becoming realized.
With six minutes left, the world turned back toward what most had expected: New Mexico surged, the Aggies faded, and the hometown crowd began to turn away, satisfied with a 67-58 result for the Lobos. The Aggies were dealt their fourth straight loss - not as much a disappointment as an inevitability.
It was a soft fall to earth for Utah State (15-13, 5-11), but still they wondered what could have been had they been able to sustain their superhuman effort just a little longer.
“I thought under the circumstances of where our season’s at, I thought our guys showed up and competed hard and gave ourselves a chance,” coach Stew Morrill said. “Just the stretch when the game’s on the line in the second half, we were cold. Couldn’t make a shot.”
Late in the second half, Utah State had authored one of its strongest performances of the season, keying off of a slow-starting, mistake-prone performance from New Mexico. To that point, the Aggies had led by as much as eight. Medlin had 19 points, and aggressive defense threatened to upend a team that rarely loses in its subterranean home court.
But it started crumbling, thanks in part to New Mexico’s Cullen Neal, who came off the bench for 12 points to spark something inside the Lobos. As New Mexico’s big men, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, began attacking the paint and getting to the line, Utah State’s own offense fell flat.
A 12-0 run for the Lobos, during a three-and-a-half scoring drought for Utah State, was the knockout blow. With 3:28 left, the Aggies were suddenly down 10 and looking very much like the 10th-place team in the conference.
“It gets tough when you miss a couple shots in a row,” Medlin said. “It kind of carries over to the whole team. That hurt us a little bit.”
Utah State only scored six more points in regulation after the 6:54 mark, and only two field goals.
Before the Aggies reverted, they had led the game against great odds. The team struggled in the paint, scoring only 18 points and being out-rebounded by 16. Bairstow and Kirk, two of the biggest players in the conference, were dominant defensively on the glass and with six blocks. Both finished with double-doubles.
The Aggies got their edge at the 3-point line, where they were 8-for-18. Medlin stretched the floor, going 7-for-12 for the game and adding five assists to go with it. An 11-0 run in the first half helped Utah State enter the intermission with a 27-26 advantage.
Medlin was the only scorer in double digits, as the rest of the team shot only 32.6 percent. Notably, senior center Jarred Shaw struggled in his matchup with Kirk, going 3-for-12 on the night.