Aggies Win Sun Belt Conference Opener

The New Mexico State men's basketball defeated North Texas Saturday night in Denton, Texas 70-67, behind Duane John's 19 points. This is the Aggies first win in Denton and their first win in a conference opener since the 2000-01 season. The Aggies improve to 7-5 on the season and 1-0 in Sun Belt Conference play. North Texas drops to 5-8 on the year and 0-1 in conference action.

On the floor they have the pizzazz of a clothes hanger and average athleticism, but in New Mexico State's conference opener against North Texas James Felder and Kelsey Crooks showed the way.

Felder and Crooks each notched a double-double, splitting 24 points and 22 rebounds as the Aggies outlasted UNT 70-67 Saturday night at the Super Pit. NMSU climbed to 7-5 overall and 1-0 in Sun Belt play while the Mean Green (5-8, 0-1) absorbed their fifth loss of their last six contests.

Crooks had a career-high 12 rebounds — the Aggies are now 5-0 when Crooks leads them in rebounding — to go with 10 points Felder hit six of nine from the floor for 13 points and 10 rebounds.

"The difference was rebounding," said NMSU coach Lou Henson, who watched as his team gathered 14 more boards than North Texas on the night. "We did a tremendous job against a very big ball club."

Most of the huge for the Mean Green comes in the form of center Shawnson Johnson. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound transfer from Louisiana State spent most of his night dunking on the Aggies – he hit 8-10 field goals and scored a game-high 20 points – and yanking nine rebounds despite being double-teamed most of the game.

But Johnson's teammates couldn't follow his lead. No other North Texas player pulled more than three boards. NMSU go solid rebounding performances from James Moore (nine) and Gary Jackson (four).

In the first half each team corralled 13 rebounds and North Texas took a 36-34 lead into the locker room. "We felt pretty good (after the first half). We were only down two and they had shot 65 percent from the floor. We felt we could pick up our defense," Henson said. NMSU did.

The Mean Green's shooting cooled to start the half and NMSU snared its first lead of the night 39-38 when Moore scored a put back. Thanks to a sudden burst by a previously quiet Duane John the Aggies unfurled a 13-3 run and their lead ballooned to 11 points.

John, who finished the night with a team-high 19 points, scored 11 consecutive points during the NMSU run.

"Early on I twisted my ankle and I could move laterally," John said. "But this game is about toughness and I picked it up in the second half."

But UNT pounded the ball into Johnson and the Aggies kept sending him to the line. Johnson missed several free throws but hit enough (and a few dunks) to chip the Mean Green to within four, 57-53 late.

Free throws seemed to keep UNT in the contest. North Texas made more from the charity stripe (17) than the Aggies shot (13). But hitting just 60 percent didn't help them.

The missed free throws stung but clutch NMSU baskets were agonizing for the Mean Green. Trailing by four UNT's defensive pressure forced the Aggies to shoot with less then five seconds on the shot clock but twice the Aggies connected.

Detruis Roberson and Felder hit the crucial shots for NMSU and a big chunk of the sparse (2,037) crowd was delighted. Felder, a native of nearby Dallas, had a lot of supporters in the stands and he made sure their tonsils got a work out.

"They energized me a little bit," Felder said with a grin that almost didn't fit on his face. With his family behind him Felder scored as many points Saturday (13) as he had all season and nearly tripled his total rebounds. The senior missed the first five games while healing from a knee surgery.

"It's feeling better and better every day," he said.

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