Texas 79, New Mexico St. 67
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)—Kevin Durant had just finished beating New Mexico State in the NCAA tournament. His long-armed tip-ins, smooth pivot moves, sudden pull-up jumpers and blocked shots had NBA scouts chuckling courtside.
So what did the Texas Longhorns’ candidate for national player of the year do immediately upon getting to the locker room, even before sitting down? Scream? Cry? Smile?
Nope. He checked his waiting text messages. He is, after all, still only 18.
On the court, no one could tell he’s just a teenager. Durant’s 27 points, eight rebounds, key blocked shots, rousing steals and general beyond-his-years dominance led the No. 4 seed Longhorns to a 79-67 victory over the gritty, 11th-seeded Aggies in the first round of the East Regionals on Friday night.
“It feels great just to be a part of it. I feel blessed,” Durant said of the NCAA tournament that “my friends had already played in.”
And, thanks to his seventh consecutive 25-point game, he gets to play again on Sunday—for the right to take his man-child game to East Rutherford, N.J., and the regional semifinals.
“He’s a different freshman,” said Reggie Theus, the former NBA all-star who led New Mexico State into its first NCAA tournament since 1999 two seasons after it went 6-24.
“He has the ball in his hand a lot. He’s getting a look at the basket at least every other time down court. And when you have that, you create your own destiny.”
Even though he went the first 12 minutes of the second half without a field goal, he made 11 of 12 free throws in the second half and 15 of 16 overall.
“Naw, I’ve never been to the line that many times,” Durant said.
Texas (25-9) made 25 of 26 free throws. So Durant screwed something up after all.
“Well, we expect him to make them all, you know,” Barnes deadpanned.
Fittingly, Durant, who entered Friday as the only player in the country to rank in the top 10 in scoring (25.6 points per game) and rebounding (11.3), connected on two free throws after his rebound with 1:10 left. That put Texas ahead 75-66 and essentially ended the game after New Mexico State had rallied from 12 down to take a 60-57 lead on two free throws by Hatila Passos with 6:39 to go.
“Durant’s a pro,” Theus said, using the word no Texan wants to associate with Durant for at least another wondrous year. “And pros know how to adjust. … I will tell you from my own personal experience that when you’re able to draw fouls, you will be a great scorer.
“And, of course, you know, let’s be honest, the referees take care of him a little bit. And he’s earned that right.”
As a freshman?
“Well, yeah. But he’s a GREAT freshman,” Theus said.
Durant’s classmate D.J. Augustin had 19 points and seven assists, and sophomore A.J. Abrams added 16 points for the Longhorns, who start four freshmen and have seven on their 12-man roster.
Elijah Ingram had 16 points for 13th-seeded New Mexico State (25-9), making its first NCAA appearance since 1999. It has not advanced past the first round since ’93.
Passos added 15 points and eight rebounds.
The Aggies rallied from 12 down with 16 minutes remaining to take a 58-57 lead with 7:10 left on two free throws by Jonathan Gibson, who had just airballed a wide-open 3.
But then Durant got into a team huddle on the floor, clapped twice and said, “Let’s go!”
The Longhorns responded with a 12-4 run that featured Durant making six straight free throws and stealing a pass near midcourt.
“Seemed like every time we had a run, there was a foul call,” Justin Hawkins said. “And they kept making their free throws.”
The game marked the return to the national stage for Theus, who in his first two years in Las Cruces, N.M., transformed the Aggies behind six transfers. The well-dressed former broadcaster and actor, whom his players jokingly call “Hollywood,” lost some of the sideline glamour behind his all-black, subdued pinstripe suit, tie and shirt ensemble 4 minutes into the second half.
He received a key technical foul after a second offensive foul call against his team in two possessions. During the ensuing timeout, Theus continually asked a referee, “Why don’t we just stop playing?” When the official asked the former Chicago Bulls guard to quiet his complaining, Theus kept talking.
Abrams converted both technical free throws and Connor Atchley made his first 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to put Texas ahead 45-33.
But New Mexico State would not go away. Behind Ingram’s frantic play, the Aggies went on a 9-0 run to cut it to 53-52 with 9 1/2 minutes left. Durant didn’t make his first field goal of the second half until 8 minutes remained. But that one kept Texas up by three.