Six games in 12 days is a challenge for any team in the best of times – which are not the times the Sycamores are in.
ISU, ravaged by injuries and then by COVID-19 absences on arrival in South Carolina, were up against it, depth-wise, in the third place game of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
For a long time against New Mexico State on Sunday, it appeared as if fatigue was going to be the Sycamores’ primary enemy. ISU played only seven players significant minutes against the Aggies.
A fired up, deep and athletic NMSU squad didn’t help matters either.
In the end, the Sycamores couldn’t fend off the physicality and depth of New Mexico State as the Aggies earned an 80-66 victory at Coastal Carolina’s HTC Center.
"We never gave up and that's a thing this team can always have. We'll be under-sized in a lot of games, so that fight and will to not give up is the chip on the shoulder we have to play with," ISU guard Micah Thomas said.
Effort wasn't a problem on Sunday, but fatigue likely was. The Sycamores sliced a peak NMSU lead of 20 down to six with time to complete a larger comeback, but the Aggies survived.
"We're not going to make excuses, but it doesn't help being down three guys," said ISU coach Josh Schertz, referring to the absence of Tyreke Key, Xavier Bledson and Quimari Peterson, the latter two due to COVID-19 protocols.
"It's less than ideal in a tournament like this and at this point? We don't have great depth at this point," Schertz said.
ISU’s starters played a punishing minutes load. Julian Larry, Cooper Neese and Thomas played the entire game. Cam Henry played 35 minutes. Only seven Sycamores played at all.
Thomas led ISU with 23 points. Neese added 18. ISU was just 6 of 24 from 3-point range, but fought hard to the end anyway.
New Mexico State has a couple of things that were going to be hard for the Sycamores to contend with – depth and a physical front line. In the first half, 10 different Aggies saw the floor. At the same time, only seven Sycamores did, and three played all 20 minutes.
Depth, fatigue or not, the Aggies came out with more aggression. NMSU scored on five of its first seven possessions to take an 11-4 lead. The Sycamores seemed tired, short-arming shots and making late adjustments on defense.
But, ISU (3-3) has shown fight in the young season, and it did again to climb back. A 10-3 run briefly put ISU in front 17-16 midway through the half.
The game hung within a possession until NMSU (4-1) began to assert itself. A 10-2 NMSU run put the Sycamores behind by 10 with 5:11 left. ISU had trouble with NMSU’s scoring ability in the paint (22 points in the first half), rebounding (18-11 edge for NMSU before halftime) and a solid offense that kicked it out to the arc for some killer 3-pointers.
ISU hung in there, cutting the deficit to six at one point, but the Aggies led by 10 at half.
"We were only down 10, but it felt like 15 to 20 because we were getting punked on the glass. It felt like they were getting every offensive rebound. We got back into play-by-play in the second half," Neese said.
Not at first, though. The Aggies kept the pedal down to start the second half, pushing their lead to 20.
Then the Sycamores sprung to life and the Aggies let off mentally and committed nine second-half turnovers. A 17-5 run shaved NMSU’s lead to 68-62 with 4:46 left. Suddenly, the Sycamores had reason to believe a big comeback was in the cards.
"We started playing with much more force on the offensive end and on the defensive end we negated some of their rebounding," Schertz said.
The deficit proved too large for the Sycamores to overcome, however. Neese missed a 3-point attempt at 2:56 and Thomas missed another at 2:19 that could have kept ISU within range. Throughout the second half, NMSU had a penchant for hitting killer 3-pointers. The Aggies were 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the second half.
"It was tough on our bodies, but the will to win and to want to comeback, that's how we stayed together to prosper and stay through," Thomas said.
ISU finally has a bit of time to rest its collective legs and get healthier. The Sycamores next play at Ball State on Saturday. By then, ISU is expecting to have Bledson back from protocol.