LOGAN -- Enjoying a 12-game win streak, things weren't quite so smooth as Butter(field) late Saturday night for New Mexico State.
Utah State, with relentless energy often spawned by swingman Spencer Butterfield, got around 7-foot-5, 355-pound center Sim Bhullar and the southern Aggies (18-9, 12-3 WAC) 73-69 at the Smith Spectrum. Though Butterfield didn't prove to be as lethal offensively after halftime, his 15 points before intermission were a continuation of the vibrancy that defined USU (18-6, 9-5) all evening as the Aggies weathered a ferocious NMSU full-court press in the game's final minutes.
Butterfield tallied 17 points, six rebounds and five assists for the evening, shooting just 1-of-6 after intermission. But Aggie center Jarred Shaw scored 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting despite being guarded by his tallest opponent all season in Bhullar. A freshman, Bhullar averages 10 points and six rebounds per game but has averaged 15 and nine, respectively, in the past four contests.
The Aggies even did it without their band, at an awards event and replaced instead by a two-man guitar group.
"It got a little scary there at the end when we started to struggle with their press, but it's really a good win for us," USU coach Stew Morrill said. "I thought they deserved to win. It's nice to see them rewarded for playing that hard."
They haven't recently: the Aggies had dropped three straight games in the Spectrum -- a first in the Morrill era -- by two possessions or less. Boasting their longest winning streak in coach Marvin Menzies' six-year NMSU career, the southern Aggies threatened to become the first program to beat Morrill three times in the Spectrum.
Neither appeared to subdue the student section in preparation for their ESPNU-televised contest. With torso-length blue and white paper sheets to start the game, ogre-like imitations of Bhullar throughout the contest and a return of Wild Bill (telletubby version), the Aggies received ample crowd support despite the home losing skid. The "Golden Girls," a local dancing group comprised of women seniors, danced at halftime in pirate apparel in front of the national cameras.
The only team with a winning record (10-9) against USU in WAC games, NMSU didn't sustain a run Saturday night.
"(USU) threw the first punch," Menzies said. "It was one of those games where you've got to get in a better rhythm and flow than we had."
Butterfield's two 3-pointers opened up a 17-4 lead less than six minutes into the game, and the southern Aggies never managed to gain a lead despite closing within one three times, the latest coming just two minutes into the second half after a layup from forward Renaldo Dixon. A 6-0 run spurred by a Shaw lay-in and dunk followed, proving to keep NMSU at bay the remainder of the contest.
"I'm glad we got that monkey off our backs," Shaw said. "I didn't worry about anything or anyone else. "This is a huge step for us. It's definitely a step in the right direction."
Bhullar grabbed five offensive rebounds and often followed his own misses with dunks. But the 61 percent shooter for the season shot just 4-of-9, and his last make was answered with a scoop from Shaw to forward Ben Clifford along the west baseline for a three-point play the old-fashioned way. It gave USU a 69-60 lead with 4:10 remaining that remained intact despite three backcourt steals by NMSU in the final three minutes of regulation.
Morrill said the southern Aggies' effective pressure resulted from guards Marcel Davis and TeNale Roland failing to advance after possession, instead waiting for two or three NMSU players to crowd them before making a move.
"It was designed right, but they weren't reacting right," he said, visibly happier than after his team lost to Denver in overtime Thursday after a 28-foot buzzer-buzzer.
After Shaw assumed Clifford's score, Morrill pointed emphatically at his prized Oklahoma State transfer in approval before Shaw ran up the court not realizing that Clifford was at the charity stripe. His sheepish attitude in heading back paralleled the unfazed approach Shaw took toward his skyward opponent.
"He's not that tall," Shaw mouthed while running up-court after converting a jump hook over Bhullar that gave his team a nine-point lead with 1:41 remaining.
NMSU was bolstered by sophomore forward Remi Barry, who averages just three points per game this season but scored 15 on 6-of-9 shooting Saturday night. The southern Aggies especially needed it given guard Daniel Mullings' off-night. The preseason all-WAC selection shot just 4-of-14 despite making 40 percent or better of his shot attempts in 22 of NMSU's 26 previous games this season.
USU faces BYU in Provo Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Their initial contest scheduled for Dec. 5 was postponed due to Aggie forward Danny Berger's cardiac arrest early that month.