Even several days after it happened, it still stings.
Utah State went to the Land of Enchantment with the longest current winning streak in the Mountain West Conference in men’s basketball. The Aggies didn’t return with it, though.
New Mexico made enough plays down the stretch to overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half. With their home crowd howling, the Lobos upset the Aggies at Dreamstyle Arena in The Pit Saturday night, 66-64, in front of 11,215 fans.
“Congrats to New Mexico,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “I thought they played very, very well, certainly answered the bell when we went up on them by 14. We need to finish that game off, but give them credit because they made a lot of plays and we didn’t. … When we made mistakes, they made us pay.”
Seventeen turnovers by the Aggies (23-8, 12-6 MW) were turned into 23 points by the Lobos (18-13, 7-11). Three of those turnovers came in the closing minutes, and New Mexico scored on the other end each time.
“We had some silly turnovers ... and we just can’t have them late in a game like that,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said.
Smith said the biggest focus was on how athletic, long and disruptive New Mexico can be.
“They (Lobos) played outstanding,” Smith said. “Just some senseless, mindless (mistakes) — playing off one foot, not shortening passing lanes, not relocating where the windows are and, at the end of the day, that catches up with you.”
USU used a 13-0 run to build a 52-38 lead with 11:45 minutes to play. It was looking good for the Aggies. However, there was plenty of time still left to play.
And the Lobos heated up from 3-point range. It didn’t help that they got some open looks and drained three triples in a row. Suddenly a double-digit lead for USU was cut to five.
“We need to be better with that and not letting a team have wide-open looks,” Smith said. “We need to be able to finish that game off. Give them (Lobos) credit, because they made a lot of plays and we didn’t.”
New Mexico had five empty possessions, but USU could not take advantage as it had four scoreless trips up the floor. Still, with 5:56 to play, the Aggies held a 57-49 lead on a Neemias Queta hook shot.
“We had chances to put this game away,” Merrill said. “I missed some open shot that I’ve got to make.”
Then, within two minutes the game was tied at 57-57. USU had two turnovers, a missed 3-point shot and Abel Porter was ejected after a flagrant two foul was called. Still, USU weathered that and held a 63-59 lead with 1:58 to play.
The Lobos would score seven unanswered points, which was just enough to get the win.
Merrill and Queta each had 18 points for the Aggies. Queta also grabbed 14 rebounds. Diogo Brito dished out seven assists as he got his fourth start of the season.
The Lobos were led by Vance Jackson with 18. He was joined in double figures by Corey Manigault (17), Makuach Maluach (10) and Zane Martin (10).
The loss ended a six-game winning streak for the Aggies, while the Lobos had a five-game losing streak snapped.
The conference tournament is next and will get the Aggies full attention. But the question of the NCAA Tournament and losing to a team that has been struggling was brought up Saturday.
“We’ve had a great season, and we’re playing really good basketball, winning nine of our last 11,” Smith said. “We have some great quality wins, we scheduled difficult. 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.”
The Aggies dropped one spot to No. 38 in the NET rankings after the loss, while the Lobos jumped up 10 places to No. 148. … Coming into the game these were two of the highest scoring teams in the MW. New Mexico was averaging 77.2, which ranks second in the league, while USU was right behind at 77.1. … The Utah State indoor track team was at the game after competing in the Mountain West Championships in Albuquerque the past three days. They cheered loud throughout the game, but were drowned out at the end. … USU is 1-5 on the season when having just two players score in double figures. … The Aggies are now 22-3 this season when outrebounding the opponent as it won the battle on the boards, 37-27. … New Mexico was just the 13th USU opponent to shoot better than 40 percent from the field as the Lobos made 44.8 percent of their shots. . Merrill scored in double figures for the 22nd straight time this year, 28th time this season and 105th time in his career. The career double-figure scoring games ties Greg Grant (105) for second. … Brito played in his 117th game to move into a tie with Eric Franson, Dan Conway and Gilbert Pete for 12th on the career list at USU. … The Aggies still lead the all-time series with the Lobos, 26-12.
Lobo fans had some found memories when they heard the last name of Bairstow Saturday night. But this Bairstow was playing on the opposing team.
Freshman Sean Bairstow was playing in The Pit for the first time, but has been there before. His older brother, Cameron Bairstow, was a star for the Lobos and drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2014.
The younger Bairstow checked into the game at the 12:56 mark of the first half and scored four points and had an assist during a 8-2 run.
The Aggie Bairstow played six minutes in the first half and did not see any action in the second half. He finished with four points, a rebound and an assist.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
There was a missed dunk attempt, but that was it over the first 20 minutes for USU.
The first Aggie dunk came at the 14:16 mark of the second half when Queta threw down a pass from Brito. Two minutes later, Queta picked up another with a tip-in dunk.
Season count: Queta 22, Trevin Dorius 12, Kuba Karawowski 9, Alphonso Anderson 9, Justin Bean 8, Brito 7, Bairstow 4, Roche Grootfaam 3, Brock Miller 2.
It’s on to the Mountain West Tournament for the Aggies. They get a bye into the quarterfinals and will play on Thursday in Las Vegas. Their opponent will be the winner of seventh- and 10th-seed game, which pits New Mexico (18-13) against San Jose State (7-23). USU is the second seed and its game on Thursday will be at 7 p.m.