ALBUQUERQUE (AP)Vance Jackson scored 17 points and drew a crucial foul Saturday night to help New Mexico knock off Utah State 66-64.
Corey Manigault added 16 points and had an important late steal and layup to help seal the victory for the Lobos (18-13, 7-11 Mountain West).
Utah State had its six-game win streak snapped and the Lobos ended a five-game skid.
”It’s been rough,” New Mexico coach Paul Weir said. ”We’re two free throws missed at Fresno and two free throws missed at Air Force. We’re (with the) ball down one with 15 seconds left here against UNLV. Close ones that make you feel a lot worse than maybe you really are. And to break through and get one… And Utah State is playing terrific basketball right now. To get this win says a lot about our guys.”
Neemias Queta and Sam Merrill each scored 18 for Utah State (23-8, 12-6).
A 13-0 Utah State run, which included two Merrill 3-pointers, pushed the Aggies into a 52-38 lead with 11:46 to play.
But New Mexico responded with consecutive 3-pointers from Makuach Maluach, Jackson and Keith McGee to cut the lead to 52-47 just 90 seconds later.
New Mexico ”certainly answered the bell when we went up on them by 14,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said.
But it appeared the Aggies had weathered the comeback attempt until Jackson headed for the basket on a breakaway and got clobbered by Utah State’s Abel Porter. Porter was ejected on a flagrant 2 that was the heart of an 8-0 run, tying the score at 57-all with 3:35 left.
That proved to be a pivotal play as Porter was the Aggies point guard, leaving the ball handling duties to Merrill.
”Abel has been a very good player for us the last year and half or so,” Smith said. ”When you lose your point guard and he’s the guy that can stabilize the ship and we’re comfortable with Merrill at the point, but he’s just another handler out on the floor… Handler and decision maker and in a game like (Saturday), that makes a big, big difference.”
Still, Utah State went back up 63-59 after a 3-pointer from Diego Brito, but a Zane Martin layup, followed by a dunk and foul shot from Manigault put New Mexico up 64-63 with 44.5 seconds left. And with 23 seconds left, Manigault snagged a pass and took it down for a layup to give the Lobos just enough cushion to win.
”To end on this note for the regular season hopefully gives us, like everybody has been alluding to, some really good energy heading into the next season,” Weir said of the conference tournament.
Utah State: Despite the loss the Aggies earned a runner-up finish in the conference standings and bye for the first round of the Mountain West tournament.
New Mexico: The Lobos secured the seventh slot in the conference tournament, which can be important as it keeps them on the opposite side of the bracket from San Diego State
Utah State has been one of the last four teams into the NCAA tournament as an at-large squad in projections and this outcome could change that, although Smith is optimistic it won’t.
”We have some great quality wins, we scheduled difficult,” he said. ”Everything we want is still in front of us. We have a great opportunity at the conference tournament to get back at it and see what we can do.”
Utah State: The Aggies face the winner of an opening-round game between New Mexico and San Jose State.
New Mexico: The Lobos take on San Jose State in an opening-round game Wednesday. New Mexico and the Spartans split their regular-season games.
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