The Big West Conference proved Thursday it is a one-team league after all.
New Mexico State, a nationally-ranked team all year, made an early, feeble exit from the NCAA Tournament Thursday afternoon, losing to Creighton 64-56 at the Huntsman Center.Everybody's-favorite UNLV is on its own from here on out.
It marked the second straight year the Aggies have come into the West Regional as the No. 6 seed and lost in the first round (last year Loyola Marymount knocked them out).
"That's as bad as we've played in years," said NMSU Coach Neil McCarthy "Virtually no one had a good game for us today."
The Bluejays from Omaha, Neb., were a big reason why the Aggies played so poorly. They won for the 16th time in 17 games by executing their game plan to perfection.
Creighton Coach Tony Barone, a little fireplug who looks like he's on the verge of a stroke as he barks instructions and nervously paces the sidelines, outlined three goals for his team before its NCAA opener.
"We felt we had to rebound with them, handle their pressure by not turning the ball over and be patient on offense by forcing them to make decisions on whether to guard the perimeter or the post," said Barone. "It just so happened we accomplished all three of those goals."
On the other hand, hardly anything went right for the Aggies, who shot horribly - a season-low 30.8 percent. They pride themselves on creating turnovers off their press and outrebounding their opponents, but those two aspects of their game were missing.
They only caused 13 turnovers -"our press was ineffectual," said McCarthy - and were outrebounded 45 to 37 for the game and by 10 in the decisive second half. "That was the key to the game," said McCarthy.
Creighton's rebounding edge was largely due to the dynamic duo of 6-10 center Chad Gallagher, who had 14 rebounds and 6-6 forward Bob Harstad, who pulled down 16 boards. Those two have played together for four years now and took turns the last two years winning MVP honors in the Missouri Valley Conference (Gallagher this year, Harstad in 1990).
Gallagher also led the Creighton scoring with 18 points, while Harstad added 13. Point guard Duan Cole, perhaps the most exciting player in the whole subregional, scored 17 points.
After taking a 24-19 halftime lead, the Bluejays came out strong, moving out to a 35-24 lead as Cole hit a pair of treys and Matt Petty also tanked one.
Then the Aggies came back with a trio of treys as reserve Terry Bennett hit back-to-backers from the left angle and Ron Putzi sank one from a similar spot. When Michael New followed in a Bennett miss, it was 40-37 with 11:03 left. But the Aggies would never get any closer.
Gallagher made three straight for the Bluejays and when Harstad added a pair of free throws it was 55-44 with five minutes left.
Late in the game, the NMSU defense started to fluster the Bluejays a bit, but they could never get a 5-second call, much to McCarthy's chagrin.
"I thought there were a few 5-second calls, but maybe they count slower in the East," said McCarthy.
The first half was a study in ineptitude. After taking an early 7-4 lead, the Aggies went nearly six minutes without scoring, seven without a field goal as Creighton rushed to a 21-9 lead. But over the last 8:17 of the half, the Bluejays could only manage a basket and a free throw as the Aggies cut it the lead to 24-19.
Creighton reserve Todd Eisner had an especially tough first half, going 0 for 7, all from 3-point range.
"The first half may have set a New Mexico State record for shooting," said McCarthy. As for the final total, he said, "It's gotta be our season low, maybe in our history."
The Aggie players had no idea why they shot so terribly.
"I don't know," said Randy Brown, the only Aggie in double figures with 12 points. "I thought we took our normal shots and we weren't rushing them. Unfortunately they weren't falling today."
"We didn't think they had too many good outside shooters - we played just good enough to disturb their shots," said Cole.
Creighton moves on to play Seton Hall at around 3 p.m. Saturday (or 30 minutes after the BYU-Arizona game).
"I feel bad for my players that we couldn't play like we have all year," said McCarthy. "We're a much better team than we showed today."