The Northern Colorado basketball team that took the court against New MexicoState looked very different than the one I saw take on San DiegoState at the McKaleCenter in the NCAA Tournament in March. Gone were seniors Devon Beitzel, Chris Kaba, Taylor Montgomery and Neal Kingman, replaced in the Bears' starting lineup by the fresh faces of guards Paul Garnica and Tate Unruh, bench players on last season's Big Sky champions, as well as true freshman forward Tim Huskisson and center Connor Osborne, who missed last season with a broken wrist. Despite playing with so many new faces, four of the 10 Bears that saw the floor were making their collegiate debuts; the Bears did not look much different than the team that won both the Big Sky regular season and tournament championships eight months ago. 2,269 fans packed Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion for the team's home opener, and the Bears opened the season on the right foot, with Unruh tipping in a Mike Proctor miss for the first bucket of the season.
When Unruh's basket went through, I had barely settled into my seat, which was, for my money, the best in the house. I was courtside, charged with updating the Northern Colorado athletic department's Twitter feed.
With the Aggies leading, 13-9, Garnica (@PGarnica3) hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put UNC back in front, and redshirt freshman Tevin Svihovec recorded his first points as a Bear to give Northern Colorado a 17-13 lead eight minutes into the game and give the student section an excuse to be at full volume.
However, New MexicoState scored the next nine points, quickly quieting the near-capacity crowd, and UNC would not regain the lead until an Emmanuel Addo tip-in gave them a 33-31 edge with 6:33 left before intermission.
The Bears led by five just over two minutes later after a three from Svihovec, who finished with seven points in 16 minutes in his first college game.
The Aggies pulled the game back to a 41-41 tie as the teams headed for their locker rooms.
The story at the half was the free throw disparity, with New MexicoState having attempted 25 free throws to the Bears' four. Despite that, the Bears looked every bit a team that had gone undefeated at home, won a conference title and acquitted it quite well in the NCAA Tournament last season.
The Bears got out to a quick start in the second half, coming out of the break with a 9-2 run keyed by Unruh (@Tateunruh) and Garnica, who led the Bears with 15 and 14 points, respectively. With 16-and-a-half minutes to play, the Bears had a 50-43 lead, as well as UncleMo and the sixth man in the stands on their side.
However, New MexicoState was bigger, more athletic and more experienced, and it showed as the second half wore on. The Aggies went on a 28-12 run over the next 11 minutes, taking a 71-62 lead.
The Bears finally showed another sign of life when Proctor (@procchops) put in two free throws after a tough battle to grab a rebound, cutting the NMSU lead to seven.
Alas, it was not to be Northern Colorado's night. A team that had gone undefeated at home a season ago dropped its home opener, 89-75.
The Bears did shoot the ball well, a 48 percent clip, and all ten players that saw the floor scored, so there are positives to build on before heading north to take on Wyoming on Tuesday.
NEW MEXICO STATE 89, at NORTHERN COLORADO 75 11/12/2011
NEW MEXICO STATE 1-0 (0-0) -- H. Laroche 4-7 5-9 13; W. McKines 7-17 2-3 18; T. Watson 1-2 2-2 4; D. Mullings 3-6 3-5 9; C. Kabongo 5-10 10-13 20; H. Rahman 2-2 2-6 6; B. Sy 4-5 2-2 13; T. Nephawe 3-5 0-1 6; R. Dixon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-54 26-41 89. NORTHERN COLORADO 0-1 (0-0) -- T. Unruh 5-11 2-2 15; M. Proctor 1-4 2-3 4; P. Garnica 6-10 0-0 14; C. Osborne 4-4 0-0 8; E. Lloyd 3-10 2-2 9; E. Addo 3-6 0-0 6; T. Huskisson 2-3 1-2 5; T. Svihovec 3-7 0-2 7; A. Hawk-Harris 2-5 0-0 5; B. Keane 0-0 2-4 2. Totals 29-60 9-15 75.
Three-point goals: NMSU 5-14 (W. McKines 2-6; B. Sy 3-4; C. Kabongo 0-3; D. Mullings 0-1), NOCO 8-20 (E. Addo 0-1; E. Lloyd 1-4; T. Unruh 3-7; P. Garnica 2-3; T. Svihovec 1-2; A. Hawk-Harris 1-3); Rebounds: NMSU 34 (W. McKines 10), NOCO 23 (C. Osborne 7); Assists: NMSU 17 (H. Laroche 5), NOCO 16 (M. Proctor 3); Total Fouls -- NMSU 20, NOCO 29; Fouled Out: NMSU-T. Nephawe; NOCO-None.