The Redhawks were up 65-64 with 5:14 left before losing the lead for good on the next possession. “That was two super-human performances,” Seattle U coach Jim Hayford said of the teams.
LAS VEGAS – Jim Hayford spread his arms wide while slowly and repeatedly waving his hands down – a signal to the Redhawks to calm down.
The emotions inside Orleans Arena reached a fever pitch during Friday’s Western Athletic Conference semifinal between the No. 4 seed Seattle men’s basketball team and New Mexico State, the top seed and defending tournament champion.
Hayford, SU’s first-year coach, had praised his team’s poise during the season when the Redhawks were 9-3 in games decided by 10 points or less.
However, in their biggest game of the season, Seattle U blinked and came up short at the end of a painful 84-79 defeat.
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“There was a timeout there at the end when I told the team that we win close games,” said Hayford, who picked up his first technical foul of the season for arguing with officials. “And we do. But we had four crucial errors.
“We missed the front end of a 1-and-1 (free-throw situation). Two turnovers in the last three minutes. We fouled the wrong guy when it was a one-possession game at about 35 seconds. Good teams make you pay when you make mistakes.”
Neither team led by more than six points in the final 15 minutes.
The Redhawks were up 65-64 with 5:14 left before losing the lead for good on the next possession.
NMSU surged ahead 78-72 with 2:16 remaining when SU made one last comeback attempt.
Senior guard Jordan Hill, who scored a team-high tying 23 points, sank a jumper that cut SU’s deficit to 73-72 with 3:16 left.
Down 78-74 in the final minute, the senior forward Josh Hearlihy committed a costly turnover that directly led to a layup at the other end.
Hill answered with a three-pointer and Hearlihy, who gave the Redhawks a big boost off the bench with 23 points, nailed a jumper to cut SU’s deficit to 81-79 with 21 seconds left.
It was the final points for the Seattle U while New Mexico State capped the scoring with three free throws.
“It took two amazing individual efforts from their players, and we took what I believe is a top-50 team in the country right down to the wire,” Hayford said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the effort our guys gave tonight.”
New Mexico State senior guard Zach Lofton scored a game-high 31 points, while Jemerrio Jones had 12 points and 22 rebounds.
Hayford also lamented slow starts in the first and second halves, which forced Seattle U to play from behind most of the night. The Aggies led for more than 30 minutes.
Senior guard Richaud Gittens scored 12 points for the Redhawks (20-13).
Hayford announced Seattle U had accepted an invitation to play in the College Basketball Invitational and said the Redhawks will host a game Wednesday.
Meanwhile, New Mexico State plays No. 3 Grand Canyon on Saturday in the WAC tournament title game.
“There’s still plenty of basketball left for these guys,” Hayford said. “They’ve come a long way, but we’re not done yet.”