Western Kentucky, behind a dazzling performance by Sparks, a pressure defense that shut down Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year James Moore and 7,337 screaming Hilltopper fanatics, pummeled the poor Aggies Monday -- winning 78-59 in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournament at E.A. Diddle Arena.
With the win, Western Kentucky (23-8) pushed its home winning streak to 38 straight games and a season winning streak to 11-0 in advancing to the tournament final against Middle Tennessee at 7 p.m. today.
NMSU (20-9) fought and fought, struggling to a 37-29 halftime deficit and courageously clawing its way to within four points with 18:02 remaining in the game. But it seemed the more the Aggies tried, the less they got done against a Hilltopper club that shut down NMSU's inside game.
"He's a great player," NMSU coach Lou Henson said of Sparks. "He couldn't make a basket two days ago (against Florida International). A player like that won't be off for too many nights. (And) we're not a great defensive team. You've got to have strength to be able to fight through screens and we didn't do that very well."
Sparks, the 5-foot-10 guard who burned the Aggies last year, wasted little time in getting started this time, nailing his first three 3-point attempts and making life miserable for NMSU defenders Jason Fontenet and Brandon Mason -- who had the unfortunate task of guarding the deadly sharpshooter.
Sparks finished with 28 points, nailing 8-of-16 field goals and 7-of-12 3 pointers. His name fit his performance Monday: his teammates and his adoring fans seemed to feed off his intensity as the game wore on.
"They got us pretty good (in Las Cruces) and we came out clicking on all cylinders," said Sparks, who practiced for the game by hitting 88-of-100 free throws. "The atmosphere was great tonight."
Fontenet was the only Aggie impressive in defeat, however, going 4-of-11 from the field and hitting 2-of-5 3-pointers for 16 points. It was his eight consecutive points at the end of the first half that energized NMSU. His defense on Sparks was admirable.
But on this night, Sparks simply would not be denied.
Western Kentucky managed to completely negate Moore, the 6-8 forward who served as the Aggies' most formidable weapon much of the year. But the Hilltoppers' defense -- along with a mask that Moore had to wear to protect a broken nose suffered Sunday in a quarterfinal victory over Arkansas-Little Rock -- combined to shut down the Dolton, Ill., native.
"(The mask) bothered me a lot," said Moore, who tugged at the protective device throughout the game. "My peripheral vision was all messed up. But because of medical reasons, I couldn't take it off."
The Hilltoppers threatened to dominate the game in the first half, when they went on an 8-0 run and led 30-15 after a Nate Williams bucket with 5:53 remaining in the half. But NMSU showed will, as Fontenet buried a quick pair of 3s, two free throws and a layup to get the Aggies to within eight with 1:12 remaining.
The score was 37-29 at the half.
The Aggies opened the second half in good fashion, as senior Brandon Mason scored on a breakaway slam dunk and again on a jumper. Fontenet nailed another jumper, and the score was 39-35 with 18:02 remaining in the game.
But when Sparks ignited the crowd with his fourth trey of the night, Western Kentucky went on a furious 18-5 run that ripped the spirit from the Aggies.
With seven minutes to go, the game had been decided, and NMSU's often-rocky season was finished.
Meanwhile, Western Kentucky looked like a team capable of making a run in the NCAA tournament that starts next Thursday. But first, Middle Tennessee