Chris Jans considered Saturday night’s game at the United Center a test of whether New Mexico State was ready for a step up in class.
The coach was happy with the result.
AJ Harris had the game-winning 3-point play, Zach Lofton scored 23 points and New Mexico State rallied late for a 74-69 win over Illinois after losing a 15-point lead.
“We talked about what an opportunity on a big stage to kind of show what these kids are all about,” Jans said. “I thought they did it. To be able to come in here — basically a road game — and be able to pull out a victory when it looked bleak at times, any coach in America would be proud of his guys.”
With the score tied at 69 in the final minute, Illinois had the ball coming out of a timeout with a chance to take the lead. But the Aggies came up with a steal and Harris converted on the fastbreak while being fouled. He hit the free throw with 29.2 seconds to go to make it 72-69.
Harris had 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
Eli Chuha had 11 points and hit a pair of free throws with three seconds left to seal the win.
Leron Black had 17 points and Te-Jon Lucas added 14 for Illinois (8-5).
“It’s the same chapter; we’ve seen it before,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “We shot ourselves in the foot again.
“I gotta to do a better job. There’s no doubt about that. And get guys to execute in the game. That’s on me. Guys have got to make better plays. We’ll find a way to get that done.”
New Mexico State (9-2) led by as many as 15 points in the first half before Illinois opened the second half with a 13-1 run for a tie at 39.
The Illini led 48-43 with just under 10 minutes to play before the Aggies rallied.
“This win means a lot,” Harris said. “It’s a big win for us.”
The matchup was a tribute to former coach Lou Henson, who is the winningest coach at both schools. Henson led New Mexico State — his alma mater — to the Final Four in 1970. He also led Illinois to the Final Four in 1989.
Henson, 85, was hospitalized earlier in the week and had to cancel plans to attend the game.
“We’re all praying for him,” Jans said. “Everybody was a little disappointed he wasn’t able to attend the game, but it was a fun night to honor him.”
The Aggies trailed rival New Mexico by 10 points with 10 minutes to go on the road last week before rallying for a 65-62 win.
“We talked about it a couple of times in huddles,” Jans said. “‘Hey, we were down 10 last week. We’re only down five here.’ Gaining that experience last week, I thought, coming from behind on the road, really helped us tonight.”
New Mexico State: Behind graduate transfer Lofton, the Aggies are off to a solid start and could be headed for a strong season — especially with the grit they showed late.
Illinois: For the Illini to be competitive in the Big Ten, it must develop more offensive consistency. This performance featured too many fits and starts offensively and that was the difference.
New Mexico State: Play Davidson on Friday in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
Illinois: Face Missouri on Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.