The NMSU Aggies face off against the UNM Lobos at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Photo: Nathan J Fish/Sun-News)
CAYMAN ISLANDS – The Patriots refused to give up.
The New Mexico State men’s basketball team led George Mason by as many as 15 points in Wednesday’s championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic, but the Patriots went into an all-out sprint for the finish line in the final few minutes of the second half.
George Mason dug itself out of the hole with a full-court press that gave New Mexico State fits, and the Patriots ultimately held a 62-59 lead with 29 seconds remaining.
Justin Kier then went on the attack. The senior guard drove to the rim, hung in the air and finished with a defender draped over him to make it a 64-59 contest.
George Mason ultimately completed the comeback for a 68-64 win that snatched the title away from New Mexico State.
How it happened
The Aggies held a slim 7-4 lead with four minutes off the clock when head coach Chris Jans reached into his bench for a spark.
In came Jabari Rice, who already erupted for a career-high 21 points in Monday’s win over Colorado State, and the redshirt sophomore didn’t disappoint.
A triple by Trevelin Queen rimmed out, but Rice soared to the bucket and tipped the shot back in. The Houston, Texas, native then drilled a 3-pointer of his own from the corner on the next possession, and he later found a wide open William McNair down low for the easy bucket to cap off a 10-0 run.
Finally, Rice got the ball in the paint with a 16-11 lead and 9:02 on the clock. George Mason’s Javon Greene collided with the redshirt sophomore, and he threw up a heave as the referee blew the whistle for a foul.
The ball splashed through the rim without even grazing iron, and Rice made the free throw for the three-point play.
Rice entered halftime with a game-high 16 points, and the Aggies held a comfortable 35-23 lead at the midway point. New Mexico State outscored George Mason with its 26 bench points alone in the first 20 minutes.
George Mason came out with a full-court press in the second half, though, which resulted in four quick points in the first 30 seconds to make it a 35-27 contest.
But the Aggies’ bench delivered once again.
Now up 46-39 with 13 minutes left in the game, Johnny McCants battled down low for an offensive rebound and went back up strong for the and-one take. The redshirt junior sank the free throw to push the lead back up to double digits.
The Patriots cut the deficit back down to 49-43 with 11:35 on the clock, but McCants halted their momentum by taking an offensive charge to give the Aggies the ball back.
George Mason kept at it, though, and underdogs took their first lead of the second half at the 6:48 mark with a triple by Jamal Hartwell II to make it a 54-52 contest.
Now up 60-59 with 1:22 left, Jordan Miller drilled a fadeaway over Queen to give the Patriots a 62-59 edge. Finally, Kier hit the tough layup to seal the deal and give George Mason the 68-64 win.
New Mexico State committed seven turnovers in the second half and got outscored 45-29 in the process.
Rice exploded for a game-high 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting (3-for-7 from deep) in the losing effort, while McCants recorded 11 points and eight rebounds.
Hartwell II led the Patriots with a team-high 17 points, while AJ Wilson recorded a stat line of 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Next up for New Mexico State (4-4) is the second round of the Battle of I-10. The Aggies host UTEP on Tuesday at the Pan American Center as they try to avenge a 65-50 road loss to the Miners on Nov. 12. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.
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