The NIT's opening day night cap came down to the wire in traditional March fashion.
WCC regular season co-champion Saint Mary's controlled this NIT opening round game for the vast majority of the 40 minutes. Their only real trouble came in the first and final few seconds of the game. The Gaels held the WAC regular season champion Aggies to just 35.9%, compared to 51.1% for Saint Mary's. Pascal Siakam scored the game high 19 points and picked up his 27th double-double of the season (14 rebounds) in a losing effort.
Joe Rahon (14 points), who hit two game winning free throws, led the Gaels in scoring.
Now 28-5 on the season the Gaels have tied their program record for wins, initially set when they ran to the 2010 Sweet 16. They will host the winner of the No. 6 Belmont vs. No. 3 Georgia game.
The big Aggies frontcourt went to work early by getting the Gaels into foul trouble. Evan Fitzner picked up his second foul just over four minutes into the game. Another starter, Dane Pineau (13 points) picked up his second just ten minutes later. In the end though the Aggies' bigs weren't able to stop Saint Mary's from scoring in the paint.
New Mexico State hit just ten first half field goals but managed to hang around thanks to five of those having been three pointers.
Saint Mary's looked content to calmly play out the game with a lead that reached 13 points and sat in double figures for much of the second half. But the Aggies switched into a zone defense against the nation's fifth best three point shooting team in an effort to keep the Gaels out of the paint, where they scored 34 points tonight.
It worked, and coming out of the under-eight minute timeout the Aggies got some shots to fall.
Saint Mary's offense went ice cold and did not score a field goal over the final 4:24. For four minutes and 22 seconds of that span the Aggies were on a 10-0 run fueled by six points from Ian Baker (13 points). The sixth of those made it at two point game with 22 seconds to play. The Aggies had to foul repeatedly down the stretch to stop the clock, but since the Gaels weren't in the bonus those fouls led to ball-out-of-bounds situations. New Mexico State played exceptional defense as the Gaels repeatedly inbounded the ball near the Aggies' basket. Tanveer Bhullar (3 points) backed his way into the paint and hit and hit a shot that made it 56-all with 2.1 to play.
Then all that fouling came back to haunt Marvin Menzies and the Aggies.
Saint Mary's inbounded the ball to Joe Rahon who was promptly fouled in the backcourt by Braxton Huggins (6 points). Rahon, who is a point guard but shoots in the 50s from the line, had a shot at reclaiming the lead with two seconds left. It was a one and one and Rahon hit both.
The Aggies' desperation heave, which would have won it, bounced off the left side of the rim. New Mexico State ends the season with a 23-11 record.