How a “Must-Win” for NMSU Turned Into a First Loss for UTEP
(LAS CRUCES, NM) — A must-win.
New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans said it.
After the Aggies capitulated to George Mason in the championship game of the Cayman Island Classic, he knew it.
NMSU had to beat the UTEP Miners.
“I just really believe if we’d won that championship our confidence would’ve been sky-high,” said Jans. “So I was real nervous going into this, like, man, we have to win this game because we need a confidence boost.
“Certainly, I didn’t tell the team that, but I felt internally, going into the game, that this was a must-win for this year’s team.”
Stark terms to throw out in early December, but Jans intuited the shaky ground his previously high-flying, conference championship-winning team was suddenly on this year.
That was dominant then, this is rattled now.
Another false step and, whether a sinkhole was truly ready to swallow the Aggies or not, they might sweat one into existence.
So, Jans and Co. did what you do when you’re cornered. They took a swing at UTEP. And landed a blow. And earned a lead. And fed off the glow of the big Cruces crowd.
And a Miners team that had whipped NMSU every which way in El Paso less than a month before couldn’t get back up off the Pan American Center’s parquet floor.
A 59-56 NMSU win to split the annual Battle of I-10. A first loss for a previously-dominant UTEP. A sigh of relief from a noticeably darker Jans.
“I took my family (to the Cayman Islands) and, you know, when you go on those trips they’re always enjoying themselves and you’re scouting and preparing and practicing,” lamented Jans.
“Fortunately, we stayed another day, so I didn’t have a choice but to get my butt on that beach and I got too much sun.”
Ah, anguish and sunshine. Both are forms of self-immolation.
This is now Rodney Terry’s world. The anguish part, anyway.
“Those guys were tougher than us,” said Terry of the Aggies. “That’s hard for me to say.
“That to me was the disappointing part, that we didn’t match the toughness. We knew going into this game that it was a toughness game, tough mindset. We have to be tougher.”
Outscored by 10 down low. A measly three offensive rebounds to NMSU’s 11, all three coming in the second half.
“In terms of points in the paint we weren’t as tough as we needed to be,” said Terry.
But, according to the UTEP coach, toughness wasn’t the Miners' only issue Tuesday night.
“We had wide-open looks and we didn’t make some shots we’re more than capable of making.”
Another truth. Were it not for Bryson Williams, the Aggies could’ve had this one done and dusted midway through the second half.
The 6-8 Fresno State transfer scored a game-high 27 points and shot an amazing 4-of-6 from three-point range. Williams made as many shots –– nine –– as the other eight Miners who played Tuesday.
You read that correctly. Williams shot 9-of-13 from the field. His teammates went 9-of-33.
“We’re a better-shooting team than we’ve shown to this point of the season right now,” said Terry. “We got wide-open looks. We make some shots and it’s a different outcome.”
For his part, Jans is all too happy to be done with the angst for now.
“After what happened in the Caymans when we had a chance to win a championship and didn’t get it done, coming back and playing in a rivalry game where they’d already beaten us. They were playing with house money a little bit and I felt like we had to win this game.
“So it feels good.”
Tag, Rodney. Your turn.