New Mexico State’s hopes of playing in the NCAA basketball tournament seemed dead during the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference tournament.
With 90 seconds left in overtime, the Aggies trailed Fresno State, 85-78.
"(The game) was ours,” Fresno State Coach Gary Colson said.
But New Mexico State rallied behind junior point guard Sam Crawford, who made two three-point shots and added a steal and layup, scoring eight consecutive points to give the Aggies an improbable 86-85 victory.
The Aggies went on to win the tournament, beating Pacific by a point in the championship game, but they didn’t stop there.
They upset DePaul last week and defeated Southwestern Louisiana Sunday to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1970.
They will play UCLA Thursday night at Albuquerque, N.M., in the semifinals of the West Regional.
“I think we gave them something that has propelled them a little bit,” Colson said.
But Coach Neil McCarthy of New Mexico State said his team actually came together a couple of weeks earlier, after losing to Utah State, 85-78, in overtime, for its third consecutive defeat.
“At that point, we could have gone either way, but we went the right way and stayed positive,” McCarthy said from Las Cruces, N.M. “Everybody up here said, ‘My gosh, what’s happened to the Aggies?’ But we kind of took care of our own business. We were playing well, even when we were losing. That’s why I didn’t get down.”
The Aggies (25-7) have since won eight consecutive games.
“It’s mostly new guys, so it’s kind of an amazing story,” McCarthy said. “They’re pretty confident. They don’t get nervous much. Sometimes we don’t play well, but we always play hard.”
Their fans appreciate it.
When the Aggies returned to Las Cruces after beating Southwestern Louisiana in a second-round game Sunday at Tempe, Ariz., a crowd of more than 4,500 greeted them on campus.
It probably took the townspeople this long to recognize them.
Six of the Aggies’ top eight players are junior college transfers, new to the program this season.
The only starter back from last season, when the Aggies were 23-6 and lost to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, is William Benjamin, a senior guard from Santa Monica High who is the team’s No. 5 scorer.
Hoping to make a quick fix in 1985 when he arrived from Weber State to inherit a team that was 7-20 in the 1984-85 season, McCarthy relied heavily on junior college players to stock his roster.
He has been so successful, winning 95 games the last four seasons, that he has continued to follow that path.
“It’s kind of a rebuilding job every two years,” McCarthy said, “but that’s part of the challenge.”
The Aggies’ top player is Crawford, a 5-foot-8 transfer from Moorpark College and Westchester High, who is averaging a team-high 12.8 points and also ranks among national leaders with an average of 8.6 assists.
Crawford was the most valuable player in the Big West tournament.
“He had a reputation for arguing with officials and not playing hard on defense--just kind of playing in his own little world--but he has fit into our group quite well,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had no problems with him. He comes to practice, works hard and has turned out to be a very good player for us.”
The Aggies’ top rebounder is Malcolm Leak, a 6-7 transfer from Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Tex., who is averaging 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Forward Eric Traylor, a 6-7 transfer from Westark Junior College in Ft. Smith, Ark., is averaging 12 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Forward Cliff Reed, a 6-5 transfer from Dixie College in St. George, Utah, is averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“We’ve probably got every junior college in the country supporting us,” McCarthy said. “They like to see us beating people with junior college players. That’s really helped our reputation.
“We can get a top-50 junior college player when we couldn’t get a top-50 freshman.”
Despite their success in recent seasons, however, the Aggies have been overshadowed, as have all the teams in the Big West, by Nevada Las Vegas.
“On the one hand, we get a lot of recognition because UNLV has always been a top-10 team in the last six or seven years,” McCarthy said. “But the year they won the national championship (two years ago), we tied them for the (conference) championship, and I’m not sure how many people know that.
“Last year, we were 15-3 (in conference play) and were ranked 11th (in the nation), but of course, (UNLV) had an undefeated (regular) season.
“Maybe because Vegas has been so dominant in our league, people think the rest of the teams are not that strong. But here we are in the final 16 and we finished in third place in the league.”
UNLV finished first, with UC Santa Barbara second.
If the Aggies hadn’t rallied against Fresno State in the conference tournament, they almost certainly would not have been included among the 64 NCAA tournament teams.
“That was so long ago, I can’t even remember it,” McCarthy said. “I just remember we won it.”
And every game since.