LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KVIA) -- When it comes to the Battle of I-10, it just means more. In front of their largest home crowd of the season, the Aggies picked up a 66-59 victory over UTEP on Saturday. Junior Jaila Harding recorded 13 first-half points, while Molly Kaiser posted 15 points including a decisive block that all but ended the Miners' hopes at a comeback. With the win, NM State improved to 10-12 overall and earned a key victory to move to fifth place at 4-5 in CUSA.
Rebounding played a key role in the NM State victory, as the Aggies held a +12 edge on the boards overall, and a 16-7 advantage on the offensive glass. That mark propelled the Aggies to outscore the Miners 20-7 in second-choice points.
In the early going, it was all Jaila Harding, scoring the first seven Aggie points. Molly Kaiser and Ene Adams rounded out the scorers for NM State in the first frame, with Kaiser posting six and Adams chipping in four points. In just four minutes of action, Fanta Gassama pulled down six rebounds, including two on the offensive end. NM State held an advantage after the first quarter, and entered the day 9-0 when doing so.
The teams would trade baskets over the first five minutes of action in the second quarter, with NM State still ahead by 10 at the media timeout. With the Miners threatening, Jaila Harding buried a 3-pointer from the right side of the court, drawing a foul and converting the four-point play to give the Aggies an 11-point edge. Harding finished the half with 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting and two makes on three attempts beyond the arc. The Aggies held a commanding 39-25 lead at the half. The home team held a 15-0 lead in second chance points at the break; and had nine offensive rebounds to UTEP's three. The Aggies scored 13 points off 10 Miner turnovers.
UTEP won its first frame in the third, pinning 14 to NM State's 10. Molly Kaiser and Ene Adams scored all 10, with the rest of the team combining for no makes on just three attempts. Fortunately for the home team, the defense proved sufficient, holding the Miners to just five field goals, forcing a combined five fouls and turnovers. With the low-scoring frame, the Aggies still held a 49-39 advantage. The Crimson & White entered with a 9-2 record when beginning the fourth quarter in front.
The Miners seemed poised to make a comeback in the opening moments of the fourth, trimming a once-16 point lead down to seven. The lead stayed between eight and 12 for the next four-plus minutes, before Jane Asinde converted a layup through a foul with 4:01 left. Asinde's old-fashioned three-point play cut the lead to five, marking UTEP's slimmest margin in the second half to that point. Jaila Harding promptly answered with a 3-pointer to stop the Miner run. Trailing by seven with 1:39 remaining in the contest, UTEP big Jane Asinde picked up her fifth foul to send Molly Kaiser to the free throw line. Shortly after, guard Mahri Petree would also pick up her fifth foul, sending the two most productive Miners to the bench. Kaiser and Petree combined for 29 of UTEP's 59 points.
Boasting a productive 15 points, Kaiser contributed her most valuable play of the game on the defensive end with 31 seconds left. Ahead by six, the senior guard stuffed Ivane Tensaie to effectively seal the game for the Aggies.
Head Coach Jody Adams, on the win: "I thought we were very locked in and focused on the game plan. We were prepared for everything. They threw multiple defenses at us, and we stayed in rhythm. They [UTEP] have two unbelievable players that crash the boards, and to be able to do what we did on the boards is just credit to our hard work and us being focused."
Head Coach Jody Adams, on the improvement of late: "I think our team is still in that growth mindset. That's just a great place to be. They still have things to learn, but a lot of that has to do with pieces that have been in or been out for whatever reason. Now we have our core group, and I'm excited for what's ahead."
Senior guard Molly Kaiser, on beating UTEP: "It meant everything. Being here for four years and being a veteran of this team, rivalry games are always fun. I've had the other end of it, so this one in my senior year was extra special. Now, we're in the second half of conference play so you need to set the tone and improve in the standings. Getting my first win against UTEP meant everything."
Senior guard Molly Kaiser, on what she will remember from the win: "The resilience we showed. After winning two at home, losing two on the road and coming back on our home court, we needed this one. Our energy on the floor and in the locker room will be what I always remember as a teammate and a leader for these guys."
Numbers of Note
- The Crimson & White defeated UTEP for the first time since Nov. 17, 2018.
- NM State held a 39-25 lead at the break. The 14-point margin was the Aggies' third largest halftime lead of the season, and most since a 35-17 lead over Utah Valley on Dec. 16.
- Ene Adams set a new career high with 12 rebounds in the win over the Miners. This is the most rebounds in a single game by an Aggie this season.
- Fanta Gassama tied her career high, pulling down 11 rebounds in 19 minutes of action.
- The home team held a 10-point advantage after 10 minutes. NM State is now 10-0 when winning the first quarter, and 0-12 when trailing or tied after the first frame.
The Aggies will return to action next week with a pair of home games against Middle Tennessee (Thursday, Feb. 15) and Western Kentucky (Saturday, Feb. 17). Earlier this season, Jaila Harding posted 12 points to lead the Aggies to a 50-44 win over WKU for NM State's first ever Conference USA win. Both matchups will be streamed live on ESPN+ and available to follow via nmstatestats.com
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