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NMSU opens hot, cools Lopes

302sports 402 Feb 3

(Dixon, GCU)

 There was no breaking news about a champion's flaw or a challenger's breakthrough to be found Saturday night at New Mexico State.

The Aggies remain the dominant WAC team, stretching its conference winning streak to 26 games with an authoritative 72-52 victory against GCU at a standing-room-only Pan American Center.

New Mexico State's second-largest crowd ever of 13,960 fans watched the Aggies (17-6, 8-0 WAC) connect on seven of their first 11 shots from 3-point range for a 27-9 lead to take off for their 11th consecutive win. GCU made one threat, a half-closing 9-0 run to cut the Aggies halftime lead to 34-25, but NMSU ran away and hid in the second half.

"I told the guys (at halftime), 'I don't think we could play any worse and we're down nine,' " Lopes head coach Dan Majerle said. "For whatever reason, we didn't come out in the second half and get it done. We've just got a lot of work to keep doing. It's tough. I thought it'd be a lot better. I knew they'd come out. It's a big game. They sell it out, which is great. We withstood it and fought to stay in it in the first half."

The Lopes (9-13, 4-4 WAC) threw scares into the Aggies on their past two visits but shot 36.7% from the field Saturday and did not get a point from leading scorer Alessandro Lever until 5:45 remained in the game. Meanwhile, New Mexico State displayed ideal unselfishness with 17 assists to only eight turnovers. Aggies head coach Chris Jans was disappointed in his defense and junior forward Johnny McCants when they escaped with a home win against CSU Bakersfield on Thursday but neither disappointed against GCU.

McCants deflated Lopes hopes a year ago at NMSU with a game-winning, half-court shot at the buzzer. This time, McCants did it methodically by making all seven of his shots torecord his first career double-double with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

"It's a different kind of beating every time," McCants said of beating GCU. "We always try to beat them a lot more every year. We focus on this game every time it comes to conference because they bring a great fan section. The competitive between us is unbelievable. It's not like UNM (New Mexico) or UTEP. It's a different conference rivalry."

Lever, who entered the game with a 16.0 scoring average, finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting on Saturday with the Aggies double-teaming him early in the game.

"He commands a lot of respect," Jans said of Lever. "He's a very good player. We know him well. He's just got that rare combo with that size (6 feet 10). He can get around the basket. He plays hard. He's gritty. He can do a lot of things. He's got good footwork. He can stretch you out and shoot it with range. He's a tough guard, being the five (center). We basically tried to get the ball around of his hands around the basket as much as we could."

GCU senior swingman Carlos Johnson hit his first two shots of the game to give the Lopes a 6-5 lead but the Lopes missed 17 of their next 20 shots to fall into a 32-14 hole. GCU mustered a 9-0 run in a 74-second stretch that was helped by steals from freshman point guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. and junior guard Isiah Brown

"It was disappointing but it gave us coaches something to talk about at halftime," Jans said. 

NMSU scored on second chances twice early in the second half and GCU never threatened again. Most of the Lopes shots were 3-point attempts but they could not sustain the hot shooting of its three consecutive road wins. Johnson led GCU with 15 points and left the game with a dislocated finger while Mikey Dixon (Sanford)  made his first field with 7:52 to go and tallied 14 points.

"In the second half, we just didn't really put any kind of charge into it," Majerle said. "

"It's good for (freshman) Bryce (Okpoh) and Jovan to play against a good team like New Mexico State but it's not good to get your butt kicked like that either, though. I wanted to see more fight out of our guys and we just didn't have it tonight."

At the midpoint of WAC play, the Lopes are in a four-way tie for third place. The upside of that is that second-place California Baptist, the Lopes' next stop in a week, is not eligible for the WAC Tournament so the second seed remains very much in play for GCU. Five of the Lopes' final eight games will be at GCU Arena.

Late in the game, Majerle stopped Blacksher after he checked out of the game with 13 points, as the regulars sat to get playing time for Louis Bangai, Raef Gerdes and Ethan Spry

"I just told him that he's going to be a good player and that this is the last time that this is happening," Majerle said. "Whether it's the two more games we play them (this season), and hopefully it's two more games, or next year, I'm done with it. I'm not giving up on this team. Never will. But we're going to bring in guys who love each other and want to win. That's the way it's going to be and Jovan's the head of that."