SAN JOSE, Calif. — New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies congratulated and consoled his players in the locker room following another season that included a Western Athletic Conference title and NCAA tournament berth.
Coping with another opening-game loss could take more time.
Article continues below ...
Bandja Sy had 17 points and nine rebounds in the lone bright spot of a horrendous shooting performance, and the 13th-seeded Aggies were eliminated in a 64-44 loss to fourth-seeded Saint Louis in the second round Thursday.
“I will say that my only disappointment is that we didn’t get a chance to show who we really are,” Menzies said. “We didn’t get a chance to play like the real WAC champions, and that’s disappointing because it’s such a special platform and a special stage to be on. And to not have the type of production that we would normally get from our guys is just frustrating.”
Saint Louis had its usual scrappy showing and a whole lot more.
Dwayne Evans had 24 points and six rebounds and Cody Ellis scored 12 points for the Billikens, who have been playing with a heavy heart since coach Rick Majerus died in December. Saint Louis (28-6) eclipsed the 1988-89 team’s school record of 27 victories and is back where it was a year ago in the round of 32.
The Billikens will play Saturday against 12th-seeded Oregon. The Ducks beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma State 68-55 to advance.
The Aggies, meanwhile, haven’t won a tournament game since beating Nebraska in the opening round in 1993,
“We’re going to look back at this year and we’re going to be able to pick out a lot of accomplishments and goals that we accomplished that we had at the beginning of the year,” said Aggies guard Daniel Mullings, who had six points on 2-for-9 shooting. “Especially after this game, we’re just going to look at some of the mistakes that we made and try to take care of that going forward.”
Saint Louis had no problem maneuvering around 7-foot-5 freshman Sim Bhullar and New Mexico State.
Evans shot 11 of 16 from the floor and finished a point shy of his career best to propel Saint Louis around, over and even through the 355-pound Bhullar, who struggled to keep pace. The Billikens held Bhullar to four points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
The Aggies (24-11) shot a miserable 28 percent. Saint Louis shot 46 percent and forced 16 turnovers.
“It was like Rick was up on top of the backboard slapping the ball out,” Menzies said.
“They played great defense,” Sy said. “They have great individual defenders, and they play good defense as a team, too.”
The big man only bothered the Billikens briefly.
The lumbering center stayed around the rim while his other four teammates chased five players around the perimeter. The unconventional defensed allowed Bhullar to save energy and protect the paint.
Once Saint Louis solved the big man, it had no trouble on either end.
The Billikens pushed the pace and often left Bhullar in the backcourt, especially when New Mexico State committed seven turnovers in the first nine minutes. Evans pulled up for several uncontested jumpers just inside the free throw line, scoring 16 points during a 29-14 run to open the game.
“He had his work cut out,” Evans said, “because we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things.”
Bhullar didn’t make his first shot until 3:49 left in the first half when he converted a short hook, and he didn’t register his first block until swatting Evans’ shot 2:37 into the second half.
After New Mexico State showed a brief burst of offense to slice Saint Louis’ lead to nine, the Billikens again leaned on Evans to pull away. He converted a pair of difficult reverse layups, outsmarting Bhullar around the rim to lift Saint Louis ahead 37-23.
The Aggies made their best run with Bhullar on the bench. Sy slammed an alley-hoop from K.C. Ross-Miller to highlight an 8-0 run that brought New Mexico State within six.
The highlights for the Aggies ended there.
Evans and Ellis — who wore a blue Mohawk-style strip across his hair — each made a 3-pointer during a 12-2 spurt for Saint Louis that put the game away. The Billikens led 49-34 with 9:30 remaining, and in typical Majerus fashion, never relented.
“The game got kind of scrappy and we kind of got out of sync for a little bit,” Mullings said.
Players wore a patch on their jerseys — a ribbon with the word “Coach” — as they have since Majerus died of heart failure in December. He left the team before the season because of health concerns, and Jim Crews has taken over and led the Billikens to the A-10 regular season and conference crowns.
The Billikens beat Memphis last year before losing in the round of 32 to Michigan State. They made their first opponent looked like a walkover, although that’s hardly been the case the past two months.
The Aggies had won 18 of 20 games, including the Western Athletic Conference tournament title for the second straight season. New Mexico State also was a No. 13 seed last year, losing 79-66 in the first round to Indiana, but at least felt better about falling to an opponent playing for a cause.
“I’m happy for those guys in the other locker room,” Menzies said. “They’re keeping their dream alive.”