By Dave Wagner
LAS CRUCES — Eastern New Mexico University’s final two games against non-Lone Star Conference teams produced probably the Greyhounds’ best outings of the season.
Coming off a 38-point win over St. Mary’s on Dec. 19, ENMU hung with New Mexico State most of the way Thursday night before losing to the Aggies 86-76 at the Pan American Center.
The Hounds (4-7), who are bidding for a third consecutive South title, have four crossovers left against LSC North teams before beginning their 12-game division schedule in late January.
“We didn’t get the win, but this lets us know we’re making improvement,” ENMU junior guard Billy Austin said. “We just have to continue our improvement and we’ll be all right.”
The Hounds shot 48 percent from the field, including 8-of-17 from 3-point range, and put six players in double figures.
After erasing an early 12-point deficit, they led the Aggies (4-7) by four points three times. They were still within four points with nine minutes left.
“We can build off this game,” ENMU coach Shawn Scanlan said. “If we can continue to compete at this level, I think we can patch up some of our mistakes.”
Disappointing to Scanlan were his team’s 22 turnovers and NMSU’s 13-of-25 shooting from 3-point range, including 8-of-13 after halftime.
“Their looks were wide-open,” he said. “We didn’t identify their 3-point shooters.
“The sad thing was this was a winnable game.”
In any event, it was a big improvement from last year’s game at the Pan American Center, a 78-44 New Mexico State rout.
“Last year we struggled and they blew us out,” said senior forward Jamaal Hunnicutt, who led the Hounds with 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “This might’ve been the best we’ve played all year, considering they’re a Division I team.
“I think this (game) is a jump-start for us. We let this one get away, but I think when we get into the conference we’ll be OK.”
Scanlan’s hope was that the Hounds could build on their halftime lead when play resumed and put some pressure on the Aggies.
“We needed to be able to control the first five minutes of the second half,” he said. “(NMSU) made a nice push, which helped them get more comfortable.”
For Austin, who finished with 10 points, it was a reunion of sorts. Not only was NMSU senior guard Allen Haynes his teammate on several Class 5A state championship teams at Hobbs, but he’s also Austin’s cousin.
“I didn’t get to see him over Christmas,” Austin said. “But I talked to (former teammate and current Texas Tech player) Ronald Ross, and he said, ‘Just go out and play, and try to act like he’s just another player.’
“I’ve never really played a game against a family member. I just wanted to hard and try to come out with a win.”