LAS CRUCES — For 39 minutes, it looked like New Mexico State had turned the tide on a 2-2 start to the season. Given how raucous the Pan American Center’s crowd was, it almost seemed like this season’s injuries, defensive concerns and shooting woes could be atoned for with a win over New Mexico.
All the Aggies needed to do was score.
Trailing 78-77 with 14 seconds to play, the Aggies were running out of chances. The final two minutes of the game were chaotic and nerve-wracking. Playing in his first Battle of I-25 rivalry game, Texas A&M transfer JJ Caldwell — who had been overshadowed by JaQuan Lyle, Carlton Bragg and Makuach Maluach up until that point — converted a three-point play to put Lobos ahead with 93 seconds to go. Then there was a long official review on a New Mexico State deflection. And another. After four turnovers in the final 30 seconds, the ball wound up in the Aggies’ hands because of their defense and a little luck.
On New Mexico State’s final possession, the crowd reached a fever pitch as star shooting guard Trevelin Queen dribbled to his left, drawing in multiple Lobo defenders. He kicked it out to sophomore Jabari Rice, who was sitting at 13 points. With over five feet of space between him and the nearest defender, the sophomore let a corner three fly.
The ball died on the back iron, and Aggie forward Ivan Aurrecoechea had no choice but to immediately foul Caldwell on the rebound.
New Mexico State had one last gasp. With four seconds to go, senior guard Terrell Brown rebounded Caldwell’s missed free throw, then passed to Shunn Buchanan, whose runner from beyond the three-point line was offline at the buzzer.
A long locker room debrief later, New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans entered the media room in the Pan American Center, solemnly took his seat in front of the cameras and fixed his thousand-yard stare at the stat sheet on the table front of him.
“This is new territory for us,” Jans said. “This is new territory for me as a head coach, being 2-3. Some of the mystique that we’ve had is over. The streaks we’ve had are over. We’re under .500 for the first time since we’ve arrived, if I’m not mistaken. So we have a lot of soul-searching to do.”
Most teams wouldn’t hit the panic button after a two-game losing streak and going 2-3 in five games, but NMSU isn’t like most teams. In the preseason, many expected the Aggies win another WAC title in dominant fashion and make a run in March because of the team’s depth, defense and returning the same group that took Final Four-bound Auburn to the wire in the NCAA Tournament. Right now, those sky-high expectations make last week’s 30-point loss to Arizona — in which the Wildcats doubled them up by halftime — and a 78-77 home loss to New Mexico look like letdowns.
But in a larger sense, the Aggies’ two-game losing streak is even more unsettling because of how their opponents have looked. For the first time in Jans’ tenure in Las Cruces, the Aggies aren’t ahead of the curve. All of the teams NMSU has lost to have shades of what NMSU should be: Arizona, New Mexico and UTEP are deep, defensive-minded teams built from the transfer market. The fact that all three schools are regional rivals of sorts adds salt to the wound.
Against Arizona on Sunday, the Aggies saw an unattainable version of themselves — one with resources, blue-blood transfers and five-star recruits galore — but built like a typical New Mexico State team. The Wildcats played 11-deep, started two transfers, brought three more off the bench and used an aggressive, sideline trap to force the Aggies into a season-high 18 turnovers. Four days later, New Mexico started three transfers from Power-5 teams, was led by a star guard in JaQuan Lyle (24 points on 9-14 shooting) and used a myriad of defenses that held the Aggies to shooting 7-33 from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile the Aggies, a team whose calling card was its 14-man roster a season ago, are shorthanded. Injuries to starting point guard AJ Harris (fractured finger) and Clayton Henry (torn thumb ligament) tightened New Mexico State’s bench to essentially three players: sophomore guard Jabari Rice, senior forward Johnny McCants and East Carolina transfer Shawn Williams — the latter of whom earned immediate eligibility in the nick of time. In some ways, the Aggies simply have had bad luck.
“I know what it feels like,” Former New Mexico State head coach and current New Mexico head coach Paul Weir said after the Nov. 21 game. “I wish AJ Harris, obviously, all the health in the world. I kind of feel for those guys right now sometimes.”
But the most alarming part comes from the Aggies’ regression on both sides of the ball. New Mexico State’s offense has gotten plenty of open looks, but the shots aren’t falling; with the all-conference-level talent littering the roster, these woes can’t be pinned on one or two players. Right now, New Mexico State ranks in the bottom 50th percentile in effective field goal percentage (46.8%) despite taking 50% of its shots from deep, which is the eighth-highest rate in the nation per KenPom. And although they’re playing without starting point guard, the senior-heavy team’s turnover percentage (23.3%) ranks in the bottom 60 nationally. Like cold shooting, taking care of the basketball has been a team-wide struggle.
Yet light of all of these concerns, the Aggies were so close to flipping the script against New Mexico.
Unlike games against Southern, UTEP and Arizona, the Aggies didn’t get off to a slow start against New Mexico. New Mexico State took its first lead on three Terrell Brown free throws with 16:46 to go in the first half, but what happened on the next possession gave the Aggies momentum they wouldn’t relinquish.
Trevelin Queen snagged a long Makuach Maluach miss on the next possession, and as soon as Buchanan received the outlet pass, he did something he rarely had all season: He took it coast-to-coast and baited Maluach into his second foul on the layup.
The ball bounced on the rim twice, holding the Pan American Center breathless before falling through the net.
Seeing their point guard score sparked something in the Aggies. In the first half, Queen and senior forward Ivan Aurrecoechea were in double-figures, the team made crisp passes and, with exception of anyone guarding Lyle, the defense tested a team that shot 51% from the field going into the game. Even though Connecticut transfer Vance Jackson heated up late and trimmed NMSU’s nine-point lead to two at halftime, the Aggies had undoubtedly played one of their best halves of the season. Their 39 points with only five turnovers were both season bests against Division I competition.
What happened out of halftime appeared to be the start of another strong second half. CJ Bobbitt scored five points to open up the scoring. Brown hit a pair of jumpers in the corner. Trevelin Queen was a walking highlight reel — most memorably with a transition dunk after rebounding a rare missed three from Lyle.
“At some point the ball is going to start going through the net, right?” Jans said. “The ball’s going to start falling and it’s going to be contagious. Everyone’s going to make a basket. When CJ Bobbitt hit that three, we thought, ‘Okay, here we go.’”
Then the Aggies’ old habits reared their ugly heads. With 12 minutes to play, New Mexico fell back into a 2-3 zone and forced three New Mexico State turnovers in just over a minute. Aurrecoechea and Williams went cold, the latter of whom sat for most of the second half as Jans tightened the already thin rotation. Buchanan, Bobbitt and McCants got into foul trouble. New Mexico State shot 1-6 after the final media timeout.
“I thought as a team we’d rally around that and other guys would get it going,” Jans said. “Unfortunately, we’re just not shooting the ball very well. We’re just not.”
Yet if New Mexico State’s turnaround is going to happen, it won’t come from just one player. Even when Pascal Siakam, Zach Lofton and Ian Baker took their turns being the Aggies’ marquee players over the past several seasons, each had at least one double-digit scorer alongside them.
Queen has, and likely will be, the most consistent all-around player for the Aggies. The do-it-all senior wing finished with 23 points, nine boards and four assists against New Mexico, bringing his season averages up to 18 PPG and 6.2 RPG — both team highs. He is the only Aggie to make multiple threes in all five games, thanks to his quick release and ability to create his own looks late in the shot clock.
“Queen is very good,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the Nov. 17 game, in which Queen scored 10 of the Aggies’ 21 first-half points. “I thought on a couple of his individual baskets, he just created really well. He had a great move along the baseline in front of our bench. A couple times late in the clock, he just took the ball and hit a floater or made a deep three.”
The New Mexico game was a similar story. Queen and Lyle duked it out for the majority of the game by trading threes in the first half, then by trading dunks in the second.
Thankfully for the Aggies, the offense won’t have to rely on just him or Aurrecoechea. Aforementioned guard Jabari Rice, has one of the few bright spots in the Aggies’ perplexing start. Despite averaging only 17.2 minutes per game, the sophomore is not only the team’s second-leading scorer at 10.6 PPG, but also is shooting 83.3% from inside the arc.
Against New Mexico, Rice singlehandedly changed the game on both ends of the floor.
He scored six of his 13 points late in the second half, the easiest of which either came at the free-throw line, or by curling into the lane untouched on a clever out-of-bounds play. For the bulk of Rice’s points, however, the sophomore didn’t shy away from the physicality in the rivalry game: He dove after loose balls against New Mexico’s Carlton Bragg, led the team in deflections and came up with critical rebounds in crunch time. So far, Rice has had 21, 14 and 13-point nights; he scored 103 points in his entire freshman year.
Getting the ball in Rice’s hands on the Aggies’ final possession made sense, even if it meant Queen deferring to the sophomore in a critical moment. And after all Rice did in the second half to keep the Aggies in it, hitting a game-winning three seemed destined.
“I thought it was a pretty clean look,” Jans said. “[Rice] can shoot the ball very well in practice, and he came off a game where he made some threes late. I thought it was a clean look and I thought it was going in. Unfortunately it didn’t, but from where I sat, I thought it was a pretty good look at the basket.”
But Rice’s signature shot will have to wait. And for now, so will New Mexico State’s.