SPOKANE, Wash. - Kevin Durant had reason to be nervous.
It was his first NCAA tournament game — and possibly his last. At least that’s how it looked until Texas took control against New Mexico State, thanks in part to their star freshman.
Durant had 27 points, including 11 of 12 free throws in the second half, and eight rebounds to lead fourth-seeded Texas to a 79-67 victory Friday night in the first round of the East Regional.
“Durant’s a pro,” said New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus, a former NBA All-Star guard, using the word no one in Texas wants to associate with Durant for at least another wondrous year in Austin.
“And pros know how to adjust. ... I will tell you from my own personal experience that when you’re able to draw fouls, you will be a great scorer.”
Even with a case of nerves.
Before Durant’s seventh consecutive 25-point game, Wanda Pratt, called her son from Suitland, Md. She thought Kevin sounded unusually nervous. Even Texas coach Rick Barnes later he said he noticed his star was “jumpy.”
But the 18-year-old freshman looked ever the cool veteran down the stretch.
Durant’s long-armed tip-ins, smooth pivot moves, sudden pull-up jumpers and blocked shots had NBA scouts chuckling courtside. Even though he went the first 12 minutes of the second half without a field goal, he was effective from the foul line, finishing 15-of-16 overall.
Texas (25-9) made 25 of 26 of its free throws, with Durant’s the only miss.
“Well, we expect him to make them all, you know,” Barnes deadpanned.
Durant connected on two from the line after a rebound with 1:10 left to put Texas ahead 75-66 and essentially end the game.
Fellow freshman D.J. Augustin had 19 points and seven assists, and sophomore A.J. Abrams added 16 points for the Longhorns, who start four freshmen and have seven on their 12-man roster.
Texas will face Southern California — a 77-60 winner over Arkansas — in the second round Sunday.
Elijah Ingram had 16 points for 13th-seeded New Mexico State (25-9), which was making its first NCAA appearance since 1999 but still hasn’t advanced past the first round since ’93. Hatila Passos added 15 points and eight rebounds.
But then Durant got into a team huddle on the floor, clapped twice and said “Let’s go!”
The Longhorns responded with a 12-4 run that featured Durant making six straight free throws and stealing a pass near midcourt.
“Seemed like every time we had a run, there was a foul call,” said Justin Hawkins, the Aggies’ leading scorer. “And they kept making their free throws.”
The game marked the return to the national stage for Theus, who in his first two years in Las Cruces, N.M., transformed the Aggies from a 6-24 disaster behind six transfers. The well-dressed former broadcaster and actor, whom his players jokingly call “Hollywood,” lost some of the sideline glamour behind his all-black, subdued pinstripe suit, tie and shirt ensemble 4 minutes into the second half.
Abrams converted both technical free throws and Connor Atchley made his first 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to put Texas ahead 45-33.
But New Mexico state would not go away. Behind Ingram’s frantic play, the Aggies went on a 9-0 run to cut it to 53-52 with 9½ minutes left. Durant didn’t make his first field goal of the second half until 8 minutes remained. But that one kept Texas up by three.
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The Aggies never could get Hawkins fully involved against the defense of Justin Mason. Hawkins didn’t score his first basket of the second half until 3:11 remained. He finished with 11 points — six below his average — on just eight shots.
Texas spent most of the first half trailing the Aggies and their inside-outside offense. But Durant changed that.
First, he turned and pivoted past David Fisher for an acrobatic basket that got the Longhorns within two. Then he showed his versatility. He pulled up for a 16-foot jumper over Fisher to tie it. On the defensive end, he blocked a shot by Fisher into a Texas fast break. Abrams ended that with a 3-pointer and the Longhorns led 33-30 at halftime.
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