By PETE HERRERA AP Sports Writer
LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) -- When Reggie Theus took over New Mexico State, the Aggies were a ragtag bunch. Now they're looking as sharp as their dapperly dressed coach.
Justin Hawkins scored 20 points and Elijah Ingram had 18 points, including four rainbow 3-pointers, to lead New Mexico State to a 72-70 win over Utah State on Saturday night for the Western Athletic Conference title and a berth in the NCAAs.
A smiling Theus, dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, lime colored tie and neatly tucked hanky, raised his arms in triumph after the final buzzer.
"I don't want to sound too cocky, but I knew what kind of players we had when we came in," said Theus, the former NBA All-Star and Rick Pitino assistant who took over the program after the Aggies went 6-24 in 2004-05, the school's worst season in 39 years.
New Mexico State's Ted Knauber stepped in front of Kris Clark's pass as Utah State was trying for a potential winning or tying shot. Knauber made the steal, was fouled and made two free throws with 12.2 seconds left to make the score 72-68.
"When you look at his numbers (10 points), they don't reflect how big he was for us tonight," Theus said.
Utah State's Jaycee Carroll hit a layup with 2 seconds left and New Mexico State gave Utah State one last chance when Tyrone Nelson threw a long inbounds pass that wasn't touched. Utah State got the ball back under its basket with 1.6 seconds left and Carroll, under pressure, was short on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We ran a play that we run a lot, a fadeaway, jump straight up and shoot it," Carroll said.
Carroll scored 26 points and Durrall Peterson 15 for Utah State, which beat No. 10 Nevada in Friday's semifinals.
"We did everything we could in the second half to give us a chance," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "We had a lot of chances and I thought we had everything scripted to come in and steal it from them."
New Mexico State (25-8) won the tournament on its homecourt and earned its first NCAA tournament berth since 1999 before a boisterous partisan crowd of more than 12,000 that stormed the court after the win and broke out in cheers of "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie."
But Utah State (23-11) nearly silenced the crowd with a stirring second half comeback led by Carroll and Chaz Spicer.
Ingram hit a 3 to put the Aggies up 44-32 with 16:06, but Carroll and Spicer scored 10 straight points and Stephen DuCharme added a layup to give Utah State its first lead, 47-46, with 10:11 left.
New Mexico State, which went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes during Utah State's rally, broke the drought with Nelson's two free throws and a high-arcing 3-pointer by Ingram. Nelson made it 58-51 with a layup, but Carroll and Co. and weren't done.
Carroll hit a a 3-pointer and followed with two free throws. Ingram hit two free throws, but Utah State's Peterson countered with a 3-pointer that sliced the NMSU lead to 60-59 with 5:15 left.
A 3-pointer by Knauber and baskets by Hawkins and Nelson pushed the lead to 68-61, but Utah State had another rally left. Peterson hit a 3-pointer and Carroll made two free throws. New Mexico State freshman Jonathan Gibson then hit a layup with 1:08 left and Ducharme hit two free throws with 59.6 seconds remaining.
New Mexico State got off to a sizzling start with 14 straight points. The Aggies hit seven of their first eight shots to lead 16-2 less than 5 minutes into the game.
With Hawkins and Nelson getting inside Utah State's zone, New Mexico State scored nine straight to push the lead to 27-10 with 11:00 left.
"They really jumped us early," Morrill said. "They just kind of take you by storm. Their energy and athleticism caught us a little off guard."
But as they've done all season, the Aggies couldn't sustain a big lead. Utah State got back in it with a 13-2 run over a 6 1/2 minute stretch. Carroll had back-to-back baskets and DuCharme hit an outside jumper and a dunk to get Utah State within 29-23 with 4:05 left.
Hawkins, on the bench during most of Utah State's run, returned and hit a layup off a baseline drive. David Fisher raced around Utah State's defense for a layup and Hawkins gave the Aggies a 35-25 halftime lead with a basket off an offensive rebound.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-03-10-07 2239MST