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Aggies’ Attitude Is Bad for 49ers : College basketball: No. 20 New Mexico State bounces back from upset to beat Long Beach State, 98-78.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Playing national powers is tough enough. Give the highly ranked added incentive and they can be especially unkind to would-be giant killers.

After being upset in its last game, New Mexico State had a bad attitude Thursday night and took it out on Long Beach State in its 98-78 Big West Conference victory in front of a sellout crowd of 4,874 at The Pyramid.

“Our ranking and lot of things were on the line for us tonight,” New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy said. “We played exceptionally well. Hopefully this was a wake-up call for us.”

The 20th-ranked Aggies (10-3, 1-1 Big West) bounced back after being upset by UC Santa Barbara, 75-65, Tuesday night. On Thursday, New Mexico State, which shot 60%, had six players in double figures, helping offset 25 turnovers. Guard Keith Johnson paced the Aggies in scoring with 16 points. Long Beach shot 43.8% for the game and committed 24 turnovers.

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Especially troubling for Coach Seth Greenberg was the 49ers’ weak interior defense. The Aggies went through the lane at will all game long. Long Beach (4-3, 0-1) also made several mental gaffes, giving up numerous Aggie baskets after inbounding the ball at the baseline.

“It didn’t feel like we played with enough defensive emotion,” Greenberg said. “Our offense is not good enough at this time of season to outscore people. We need to play better defensively.”

Long Beach trailed by as many as 21 points twice in the second half, but rallied behind junior guard Jamie Davis. Davis scored 17 of his game-high 19 points in the second half.

The 49ers cut the lead to 76-68 on a tip-in by Davis with 3 minutes 52 seconds to play, but that’s as close as they got.

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Long Beach point guard Rasul Salahuddin fouled Johnson on a fast-break dunk with 2:11 to play. Johnson’s dunk gave the Aggies an 85-72 lead, and the foul was ruled intentional. Johnson missed two free-throw attempts, but New Mexico State maintained possession and stopped the 49ers’ momentum.

Long Beach’s performance spoiled the return of guard James Cotton, the Big West freshman of the year last season, who had been sidelined since Nov. 18 with a severe left ankle sprain. Cotton, understandably rusty, scored 14 points on three-of-10 shooting from the field.

“We knew they would come out ready after that loss,” Cotton said. “We just weren’t playing together at times.”

New Mexico State shot 55% in the first half and led, 45-36, at halftime. Long Beach also shot well, making 50% of its attempts, but the 49ers committed 14 turnovers to 10 for the Aggies.

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Moreover, Long Beach’s starting front line of forwards Juaquin Hawkins and Mike Atkinson, and center Joe McNaull did not score. Atkinson was the only member of the group to attempt a shot, missing two field-goal attempts and two free-throw attempts.

Forwards Terrance O’Kelley and Akeli Jackson did their best to pick up the slack. O’Kelley, who had eight points and nine rebounds in the game before fouling out, scored all of his points in the first half and had six rebounds. Jackson (11 points and four rebounds) had seven points in the half and all his rebounds.

Atkinson, the 49ers’ leading scorer at 15.3 points entering the game, finished with four points. McNaull and Hawkins did not score.

“They did a good job getting to Mike,” Greenberg said. “I’m sure (stopping) Mike was a big part of their game plan. They extended their defense and cut down our passing lanes.”

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Cotton entered the game with 16:19 remaining. He led Long Beach with nine first-half points in 13 minutes.

Guard Troy Brewer (13 points) sparked the Aggies off the bench, leading the team with 11 first-half points in only 12 minutes. Center Wyatt Thomas (14 points), successful on all six of his first-half free-throw attempts, gave New Mexico State its biggest lead in the half, 38-25, on two free throws with 3:36 to play.

Notes

Long Beach officials were understandably pleased they did not have to change the site of Thursday night’s game. Numerous leaks in The Pyramid, which is still under construction, and problems with the water-drainage system prompted discussions about moving the game to The Gold Mine gymnasium, Long Beach Arena or Long Beach City College. The decision was made late Wednesday night to stay put. “We felt we were out of danger last night, around 8 or 9, with the latest weather report that showed rain subsiding,” said Bill Shumard, a 49er assistant athletic director. “Also, we were able to fix the (water) pump that went out. That was huge.” Shumard said Long Beach sold approximately 4,500 tickets--including season tickets--in advance sales, which would have made moving a burden. “Any move would have been extremely difficult,” he said. “If we ended up playing in a venue that was smaller than the number of tickets we had sold, we would have had some unhappy people. We would have been making refunds.” . . . Long Beach senior forward Mike Atkinson said the team was unfazed by the talk of a site move. “It really didn’t matter,” Atkinson said. “Because of all the construction going on here, it really hasn’t become much of a home court for us yet. It probably would have been a little more devastating if it happened next year.”

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