Irvine Just Doesn’t Have Enough for New Mexico State
A year ago, after losing to New Mexico State by 30 points, UC Irvine walked out of Pan American Center “embarrassed,” Coach Rod Baker said.
Monday night there was no embarrassment, “just disappointment,” Baker said.
This time, New Mexico State had to scramble from an eight-point halftime deficit to turn back Irvine, 85-80, in a Big West Conference game before 6,823. The victory lifted the Aggies (11-3) to 2-1 in the conference going into Wednesday’s home game against Cal State Fullerton. Irvine (4-6) fell to 0-3 in Big West play.
“There were probably five to seven possessions in the game where we weren’t focused enough to be successful against a team this good,” Baker said. “We didn’t need a whole lot more points to win. We played pretty well against them, but we have to be very, very good against a team like that.”
The 24th-ranked Aggies, the preseason pick to win the conference, shot 57.1% and cooled Irvine’s hot-shooting Mark Odsather in the second half with a relentless man-to-man defense.
Odsather had scored 17 points in the first half, including five three-point baskets, but the Aggies held him to only one basket the rest of the way. Despite that, the Anteaters remained a threat, helped by a 25-point, 10-rebound performance by freshman forward Kevin Simmons.
New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy, who has guided the Aggies to six consecutive 20-victory seasons, said stronger defensive play by his team in the second half was the key.
“The man-to-man just got the job done in the second half,” McCarthy said. “That team will really be tough at their place. Their talent level is much improved. That Simmons is a flat-out player. He was like a windshield wiper on the boards. It seemed he got 25 rebounds, instead of 10. Odsather hurt us a lot in the first half too.”
The Aggies got a 19-point boost from reserve Paul Jarrett, 13 coming in the second half. Forward Thomas Wyatt had 17 points and guard Rodney Walker added 15.
The Anteaters built an 11-point lead in the first half, but the Aggies closed it to eight points by halftime.
Irvine made a rush to trail only 80-78 with about a minute left on a layup by Zuri Williams after a steal, but the Aggies turned back the surge.