New Mexico State Spoils Titans' Storybook Ending

Times Staff Writer

With this same script, Cal State Fullerton had won other games this season.

The Titans had won by coming from 13 points behind. They had won after John Sykes picked up a loose ball and stuffed it back in. They had won when Wayne Williams launched a long-range three-pointer, and sank it.

But this time, the comeback failed. Sykes' shot rimmed out, and Wayne Williams' last-second three-pointer bounded off the heel of the basket just before the buzzer.

Not that even the three-pointer would have been enough. Fullerton got the ball back for the final time trailing by four with 4 seconds left. It ended up the same way, with New Mexico State taking a 60-56 victory Thursday night in the Pan American Center.

With that, New Mexico State clinched second place in the Big West Conference, winning its 19th game of the season. The Aggies are 12-5 in the Big West, 19-8 overall.

The Titans (14-12, 9-8) can clinch at least sixth place with a victory Saturday over Cal State Long Beach.

"That game becomes much more important for us now, unless you start looking for other people to help you out," Fullerton Coach John Sneed said.

Like several other Big West teams, the Titans are trying to finish sixth or better to earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

Although 19 victories is the most for the Aggies since 1979, they have played in front of unusually small crowds, this one 7,182. The season average of 6,276 is the lowest in 13 years, a phenomenon attributed here to everything from Coach Neil McCarthy's speaking fee to the flu bug to ticket-office etiquette.

In any case, the Aggies, who nearly let this one get away with poor free-throw shooting--16 of 30 in the game--ultimately won it at the line.

William Benjamin, a freshman who is averaging five points a game, hit both ends of a one-and-one with 4 seconds left to put the Aggies up by four.

"Everybody was holding their breath when the little freshman walked to the line," McCarthy said. "But he's shooting 76%. I figured he was going to get these."

Fullerton trailed by five at halftime, then fell behind, 44-31, when Jeff McCool hit a three-pointer with 13 minutes to play.

But Fullerton pulled back into it, thanks in part to back-to-back inside baskets by David Moody.

The Titans, only one for 12 from three-point range in the game, hit their one when Mark Hill cut the lead to 52-49 with 4:20 remaining.

Fullerton, fouling the Aggies inside, watched as the Aggies missed free throws--10 of 19 in the second half. But Fullerton never got closer than 57-56 with 1:27 left.

Sykes blocked a shot, and Cedric Ceballos came up with the ball and broke downcourt, but his on-the-move shot in the lane didn't fall.

Fullerton had one more solid chance, trailing, 58-56, with 33 seconds left. Hill tried a three-pointer with about 12 seconds left. Sykes picked up the loose-ball rebound, but also missed. Van Anderson tried once more, but his shot went in and out.

As is the custom between these teams, this was a defensive game.

"That's the best matchup zone we've seen all season," Sneed said.

McCarthy, surveying shooting percentages below 40% for both teams, also cited defense.

"I thought our defensive effort wasn't too shabby. They shot 34%," he said. "Their's was pretty darn good, too, though. We shot 39%."

New Mexico State could be particularly proud of its success against Ceballos and Hill, who are the top two scorers in the Big West in conference games, averaging 21 and 19 points.

Ceballos scored only 11 points, and Hill only 16. Hill made just six of 18 shots, one of eight from three-point range. Derek Jones picked up some of the slack, finishing with 12.

"I feel good we held Ceballos to 12 and 11 points in our two games this year," McCarthy said.

New Mexico State also managed to do a number on Fullerton on the boards, especially in the first half, when the Aggies outrebounded the Titans, 23-16. Fullerton did better in the second half, and eventually reduced the margin to four.

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