PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — On its way to the Western Athletic Conference tournament title and an NCAA bid, New Mexico State excelled at what its strength was all season: being overpowering on the interior and getting to the free-throw line.
The Aggies quickly discovered Indiana is nothing like what they faced in the WAC.
“They took us out of our game. They took us off guard,” New Mexico State guard Hernst Laroche said.
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Jordan Hulls put on a shooting display in the second half and finished with 22 points, and fourth-seeded Indiana returned to the NCAA tournament after a four-year absence with an impressive 79-66 win over the Aggies on Thursday night in the second-round of the South Regional.
Hulls shot 8 of 12, and 7 of 8 in the second half including his own personal 11-point run as the Hoosiers (26-8) blew the game open. Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Will Sheehey all finished with 14 points for Indiana as the Hoosiers shot 59 percent.
But just as important as the Hoosiers’ shooting was their ability to deny the Aggies what they did best. New Mexico State (26-10) entered the tournament as the best team in the country and getting to the free-throw line, yet attempted just 10 free throws. They were also one of the top teams in offensive rebounds and rebounding margin, but finished with just seven offensive boards — half their season average — and were barely ahead of the Hoosiers in total rebounds.
Not that there were many to grab with Indiana shooting 64 percent in the second half.
“I thought we had a little lull there as far as being aggressive in our rebounding. Because they did a good job,” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. “They knew we were a very good rebounding team. So they were hitting them.”
Wendell McKines led New Mexico State with 15 points, Bandja Sy added 12 off the bench and Daniel Mullings scored 10. But there were other problems for the Aggies other than their inability to dominate the glass or get to the line as they did with such ease in conference play. New Mexico State committed 13 turnovers in the first half — finishing with 17 — and struggled in their half-court defense against Indiana’s sets.
That was evident in the second half when Indiana hit its first three shots and 11 of 16 to start the half. No one was hotter than Hulls. After hitting just one shot in the first half, Hulls scored 11 straight during one stretch including a trio of 3-pointers, the last of which gave Indiana a 62-41 lead with 11:14 left.
New Mexico State awakened, making sure Hulls didn’t get open looks and started knocking down some of its own shots. A 10-2 Aggies run, capped by Sy’s 3-pointer, cut the deficit to 64-51 with 7:40 remaining. The run stalled when Mullings was called for traveling in transition and the Aggies never got closer than 12.
“They hit some big, big shots in transition. . It was heartbreaking every time we’d get on a little run, they’d come down and just dagger us with 3s,” New Mexico State’s Hamidu Rahman said.
Indiana picked up its first tournament win since beating Gonzaga in 2007 on a night its main stars — Zeller and Watford — did the heavy lifting in the opening minutes then watched Hulls and others take over.
Now the Hoosiers get their shot at tournament upstarts, 12th-seeded VCU, which upset No. 5 seed Wichita State on Thursday. Thursday’s win was another notch in a four-year reclamation project for Indiana coach Tom Crean, who inherited a gutted program that went a combined 28-66 in Crean’s first three seasons only to produce Indiana’s most memorable regular season in nearly a decade.
“I think when I look up at the crowd and catch a glimpse of my family … it hits you for a brief moment that this is really, really special,” Crean said. “We’ve been through so much to get to this point. We’ve all learned a great deal. Everybody is better. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but everybody is better for what we had to endure.”
New Mexico State has not won in the NCAAs since 1993 when the Aggies were a No. 7 seed and beat Nebraska in the first round before getting routed by Cincinnati in the second round. They’ve now lost in their tournament opener in their last five appearances.
“We just lost to the better team tonight. They were the better team. They shot it better. We out-rebounded them. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to take care of the ball in championship play and we did a horrible job in that arena,” Menzies said. “When you’ve got 13 turnovers at halftime and you’re only down seven, all was not lost. But they responded and they came out and played very well in the second half.”