Utah State had experienced the New Mexico State trapping zone defense once already, three weeks ago in Las Cruces, N.M., and Coach Kohn Smith was anxious to stay away from it. Steal-and-peel layups off the trap are a big part of New Mexico State's offense, and the defense has carried Neil McCarthy's club into the nation's Top 15 on both wire-service polls.
Smith devised a game plan for Thursday night's home rematch that would see his Aggies passing the ball around the outside, hoping to make the other Aggies extend their zone. Utah State played a relatively stationary offense, instead of using its usual cuts, and McCarthy said his greyhounds seemed to stand flatfooted much of the time.That much worked. The game plan bought Utah State some time and kept it close enough that the home boys had opportunities to win - they were behind by six with 2:53 left.
Sheer athleticism, however, won out.
New Mexico State made off with an 83-75 win in the Smith Spectrum, only USU's second BWC loss at home.
"I felt our athletic ability was a little bit higher than theirs," said McCarthy.
Though USU cut its turnovers to seven (down from 24 in Las Cruces), New Mexico State still dominated the boards, 42-29, and its 18 offensive rebounds helped account for about 19 points - 11 in the first half. Tracey Ware, a long-armed 6-foot-7 forward, occupied USU's Randy Funk (21 points at Las Cruces, 12 Thursday) much of the time, outleaping him for rebounds and scoring 18 points as well. "He's been doing that lately," said McCarthy. "He gets stronger as the game goes on."
Reggie Jordan, a 6-foot-4 leaper, took over the second half, scoring 16 of his game-high 20 and getting six of his 10 rebounds after McCarthy's intermission comments to him.
"They're awful big and physical and outmanned us down low," said USU guard Jay Goodman (18 points), who coped with New Mexico State's quick hands all night. "They're always coming from behind you," he said. Goodman had no turnovers.
"They're real good on the offensive boards," added USU freshman forward Bryon Ruffner. "They're just big and strong and athletic and keep you off balance.
"We'd get real close, and it seemed like they'd pick it up a little bit," said Ruffner, who had a career-high 19 points in just 18 minutes on 7-for-9 shooting. He had 10 points, a steal and five of his six rebounds in the game's final six minutes, but NMS weathered the Ruffner rally with free throws.
"That's the way our team plays," agreed McCarthy. "Better when the game is closer."
It was at its closest when two Goodman free throws trimmed NMS's five-point halftime lead to one, 40-39, at 18:11 of the second half. Michael New - the center, of all people - calmly drilled a three-pointer eight seconds later.
A flying Goodman scoop made it 43-41, but New Mexico State sank free throws and ripped down rebounds as the Aggies missed on three straight offensive opportunities. A Terry Bennett three-pointer made it an eight-point lead, and a Jordan three-pointer made it 52-43.
"The second half, we had to rush our shots," noted Smith.