NMSU walloped by Sam Houston State for worst conference loss of Chris Jans era

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Murphy's law is so simple and overused that it's practically become cliché. But that doesn't make it any less true, especially when a basketball team that came into its Thursday contest tied for first in the Western Athletic Conference suffers its worst loss since it lost to Utah State by 27 points in the second week of the season.

Because everything that could go wrong did go wrong in New Mexico State's Thursday-night 71-46 loss to Sam Houston State.

It marked the Aggies first conference loss of 20 or more points since December 2012, when they lost to UT-Arlington 68-47. The Aggies, who came into the game with a half-game lead in the conference over Sam Houston, were held to their fewest points of the season and were handed their worst loss to a non-Power conference opponent since head coach Chris Jans took over the program in 2017.

More: Ugly Aggies or Lucky Aggies? Statistics suggest NMSU men's basketball has caught fortuitous breaks en route to 12-2 start

Head coach Chris Jans stands on the sidelines as the New Mexico State Aggies face off against the Tarleton State Texans at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.
Head coach Chris Jans stands on the sidelines as the New Mexico State Aggies face off against the Tarleton State Texans at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.

How it happened

NMSU, as its often done this season when trailing by multiple possessions early, decided to jump into a full-court press after senior forward Donnie Tillman made a pair of free-throws to slice Sam Houston State's early 13-3 lead to 13-5 with 11:53 left in the first half.

More: 'Tonight, it was my night:' Allen has Aggies first 41-point performance in 20 years as NMSU skates past Abilene Christian

It was a bid to generate something. Anything. A defensive stop, an opportunity to run on the fast break, a bad decision by a Sam Houston State ball handler, anything at all. The Aggies had shot under 10% from the floor, and their only points came on a point-blank layup from redshirt senior forward Johnny McCants on a second-chance opportunity. The Bearkats, meanwhile, were shooting well over 60% from the field and had already connected on three 3-pointers.

Something had to change.

"We tried it all," Jans said. "We tried different presses in the full court, we played some two-three (zone), we played some one-three-one (zone), we trapped some ball screens, which we don't do a lot of, in the first half to try to just get on a spurt."

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NMSU abandoned its full-court pressure after Sam Houston State broke its press in five passes in 12 seconds and freshman guard Damon Nicholas Jr. threw up a lob dunk for graduate transfer center Kuba Karwowski.

NMSU graduate transfer forward Yuat Alok had an opportunity to immediately answer on the other end. The faster and more agile Alok caught a pass from redshirt junior guard Jabari Rice, who started looking to create for others since he was still scoreless. He and fellow redshirt junior guard Teddy Allen, the Aggies two leading scorers on the season, shot a combined one of eight for two total points.

Alok took two dribbles to get to the right block and threw up a hook shot he's made countless times throughout the season. More than a quarter of the ball went inside the rim before it spun out. Sam Houston State guard Donte Powers splashed the Bearkats fourth 3-pointer of the game on the other end. NMSU was never within single digits of Sam Houston State the rest of the night.

The Aggies shot 25% from the floor, 25% from the 3-point line and 43% from the free-throw line in the first half compared to Sam Houston State's 64%, 54% and 75% shooting from those respective marks. The Bearkats made more 3-pointers (seven) than the Aggies did total shots (six). NMSU trailed 38-18 at halftime, the most points it has trailed by since it was behind Utah State 41-16 when the schools met at the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

The Aggies never cut the deficit to less than 20 points in the second half, and Jans substituted out the last of his starters with 11:35 left in the game trailing by 35 points. The lead swelled to 38 before NMSU's 13-0 run made the final score more tolerable but did little to improve the game's second-half competitiveness. Sam Houston State fans cheered "Start the bus!" as the Bearkats led by 25 as the clock wound down.

Thursday's stars

For NMSU, there wasn't one.

An Aggie failed to score at least 10 points for the first time this season. McCants and Tillman led the Aggies with eight points each, and McCants sat most of the second half. McCants was the only Aggie to connect on more than one 3-point attempt.

Sam Houston State graduate transfer Savion Flagg, the WAC's second-leading scorer heading into Thursday's game, finished with 22 points and three assists on 50% shooting. Powers added 12 points on four 3-pointers. Twelve Bearkats received minutes.

What was said

Jans on what he chalks up the loss to: "I'm not sure. Just got off to a poor start, couldn't turn the tide at all. It just became an avalanche of sorts. I thought maybe after halftime that we'd come out and put up a fight and get some momentum and maybe try to claw back in the game. I think most of our fans probably thought the same. And boy it went in the other direction quickly. We didn't get off to a good start in the second half, much like the first, and before you knew it, it was blowout city. I'm not sure (what to chalk up the blowout loss to). I've got a bunch of theories and thoughts."

Jans on if he was surprised by how the team began the game: "Sports is interesting. We had an awful shootaround. We were listless. We were unfocused. We didn't shoot it well. We didn't get to shoot in (the arena) last night for travel reasons. It's not been a good trip that way. But the warmups, the energy in the warmups, the 30 minutes before the game-type stuff, the 10 minutes before the game, the energy and enthusiasm was really really good, like more than normal. Outside looking in, you'd think that we were locked and loaded, but I don't know. I'm not sure. If I knew how this happened, I would certainly do whatever I've got to do to make sure it didn't happen again. Unfortunately, this particular team, when we lose, we lose hard. We've had two of these games this year that have been pretty unfamiliar with us for the most part."

Jans' message to the fans: "There’s 50-something (fans) that paid their money and flew here and bussed here and ‘We’re gonna have a road trip with the Aggies,’ and I just wish I could look every one of those in the eye and tell them I’m sorry for the performance that we had today, because I'm sure that's not what they expected. ...I told Jack (Nixon), in my soul, I've always said this, I've been saying this, we're not like we used to be on the defensive end of the court. We're not. We don't rebound like our life depends upon it. We want to relax and outscore people at times and rely on our size and talent and that's not what happens. You don't win that way. You just don't. It came bursting out at the seams tonight, for sure."

What's next

NMSU heads an hour and a half east to Nacogdoches, Texas for the second and final matchup of its two-game East Texas road swing. Sam Houston State stays home and welcomes Grand Canyon Saturday afternoon.

Ironically, Grand Canyon lost to Stephen F. Austin Thursday by the exact same score, 71-46.

Stephen Wagner is a sports reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can found on Twitter at @stephenwag22 and reached at SWagner@lcsun-news.com.

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: NMSU walloped by Sam Houston State for worst conference loss of Chris Jans era

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