SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State men's basketball had everything in front of it: a guaranteed No. 2 seed in the Mountain West Tournament, a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, and the optimism of March while playing some of its best basketball of the year.
And in a matter of minutes, doubt and uncertainty were cast into play in The Pit.
Vance Jackson had 17 points and three steals, and Corey Manigault added 16 points, including the game-sealing finish to help New Mexico rally in the final three minutes to top Utah State, 66-64 Saturday night at Dreamstyle Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sam Merrill had 18 points, including four 3-pointers, to lead the Aggies, and Neemias Queta added 18 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks for the Aggies, who six points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals from Justin Bean.
It's just the second loss in the past 11 games for the Aggies, who fell to 23-8 with a 12-6 record in league play — tied with Nevada and UNLV, and a five-game finish behind San Diego State.
“Utah State is playing terrific basketball right now,” New Mexico coach Paul Weir said. “To get this one says a lot about our guys.
“To beat a team of this caliber says a lot about these individual players.”
Still, this one will hurt.
Merrill had seven points, and Queta added eight points with three rebounds and two blocks at halftime. But the Aggies trailed by one, 33-32 after the Lobos ended the first 20 minutes on an 8-2 run punctuated by Zane Martin’s dunk with 1:41 remaining.
That turned Utah State’s five-point lead with 3:42 on the clock into a one-point deficit at halftime.
Merrill hit a three less than four minutes into the half to give the lead back to the Aggies, then sparked a 13-0 run just over a minute later en route to a 52-47 advantage midway through the second half.
But the lead didn’t hold.
UNM cut the deficit to two on Manigault’s posterizing dunk with 5:08 left, and the Lobos tied the game at 59-all with a jumper from Vance Jackson a little over two minutes later. The hosts didn’t take a lead until Manigault’s game-tying flush with 44 seconds remaining mixed with an ensuing foul shot — but Utah State still had a chance.
Until forced a turnover on the ensuing possession, scooped up the loose ball, and raced downcourt in transition for the game-sealing score.
The Aggies still clinched the No. 2 seed, by virtue of a tiebreaker with No. 3 Nevada, which lost to top-seeded San Diego State on Saturday. But their quarterfinal matchup March 5 with the winner of No. 7 New Mexico and No. 10 San Jose State will surely be tainted by this season-ending result.
The Wolf Pack, meanwhile, will face the winner of No. 6 Colorado State and No. 11 Wyoming — in many ways, a better matchup for Utah State. The Aggies swept both the Rams and Cowboys, compared to the loss in the only meeting with the Lobos.
It also puts Utah State’s at-large consideration on thin ice. The Aggies were a near-consensus pairing among the “last four in” by most bracketologists, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. But that result was largely conditioned on winning its final two games of the regular season — last Tuesday to San Jose State, and Saturday night in The Pit.
Now they’ll have to go to Las Vegas and win likely several games to feel remotely secure. They can also clinch the Mountain West’s automatic bid with three wins in three days leading up to Saturday, March 7, as well.
Utah State will open the Mountain West quarterfinals Thursday, March 5. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT at the Thomas and Mack Center, and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.