MEN’S BASKETBALL: Tops shine as nation watches

Jay Lively

It was experience vs. youth on the sideline Saturday as New Mexico State coach Lou Henson – who had 769 victories in 40 seasons coming into the game?- went up against rookie Western coach Darrin Horn.

Youth won on the sideline.

Defense won on the court.

Henson is second behind Bobby Knight among active coaches for career wins and eighth all time. He already had 197 wins under his belt by Dec. 24, 1972 – the day Horn was born.

While he had the edge in experience, his team had no answer for Western’s defensive intensity.

The Hilltoppers (8-9, 3-3 Sun Belt) set the tone early holding the Aggies (7-9, 1-4) to three points in the first seven minutes of action and were ahead 35-19 at the break.

Horn said it was the best 40 minutes of defense Western has played all season. They forced 21 turnovers.

“We really created a lot for ourselves because of our defense in the first half,” he said. “I think it got our kids going and the crowd into it.

“We had 20-plus deflections in the first half., which tells you you’re really being active defensively.”

The Toppers held senior forward James Moore, the Sun Belt Pre-season Player of the Year, to a quiet 14 points and 6-foot-6 guard John Duane to 11, both below their season average. No other Aggie reached double figures.

“We wanted to limit (Moore’s) touches and when he did get it, make him make tough shots,” Horn said. “We did a pretty good job defending him, but he showed why he was conference player of the year last year.”

On the offensive end, Western dominated a much smaller and understaffed New Mexico State by outscoring the Aggies 46-10 in the paint.

In front of a national audience on ESPN2, Western got another big performance from senior center Nigel Dixon, who scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Dixon, who is shooting .698 from the field but only .426 from the charity stripe, said he anticipates a foul every time he gets the ball in the paint.

“I’m a pretty big guy,” the 320-pound center said. “l can pretty much get my way down (low). I just try to either get the foul or the bucket.”

Dixon made 10 of 13 from the floor and 3 of 7 from the free-throw line during the game.

After trailing by 16 at the half, the Aggies whittled the Topper lead down to 45-38 after a three-pointer by freshman guard Byron Davis midway through the second half.

But that’s as close as they would get.

In a two-minute span Western smothered New Mexico State’s momentum with its trapping defense to break the game wide open.

The crowd pleasing flurry went like this: three steals, two forced turnovers, a Dixon dunk, a Dixon layup, an Anthony Haynes 3-pointer, and a spinning back-to-the basket over-his-head-ESPN-highlight layup by Haynes to cap it off.

And when the dust settled, Western held a commanding 17-point lead.

Not a bad two-minute drill.

Another offensive spurt minutes later, highlighted by back-to-back three-pointers from Haynes and sophomore guard Anthony Winchester, put Western up 69-46 with 4:10 left to put the game out of reach for the Aggies.

Winchester had 10 points, six assists and five rebounds on the afternoon and Haynes finished with 14 points and one turnover.

Horn praised the junior point guard for the energy he exudes on the floor.

“His ability to get in the paint and create scoring opportunities for himself and others is a big bonus for us,” Horn said. “And the fact that he plays with a lot of emotion, especially at home in front of the Diddle fans. We just have to find a way to bottle that emotion and take it on the road.”

Western plays at 7 p.m. Thursday in Diddle against Louisiana-Lafayette and then heads to Miami to face Florida International at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Reach Jay Lively at [email protected]