PORTLAND, Ore. — After a four year absence, Indiana is making its NCAA tournament return last longer than just one brief appearance.
Next up: Shaka Smart and those bracket-busting upstarts from VCU.
Jordan Hulls went on a second-half shooting spree and finished with 22 points, and the fourth-seeded Hoosiers rolled to an impressive 79-65 win over New Mexico State in the second-round of the South Regional on Thursday night.
Indiana picked up its first tournament win since beating Gonzaga in 2007 on a night its main stars – Cody Zeller and Christian Watford – did the heavy lifting in the opening minutes then watched Hulls and others take over.
Hulls shot 8 of 12, and 7 of 8 in the second half including his own personal 11-point run as the Hoosiers (26-8) blew the game open. Zeller, Watford and Will Sheehey all finished with 14 points for Indiana.
The Hoosiers will face the 12th-seeded Rams in the third-round on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday's win was another notched in a four-year reclamation project for coach Tom Crean, who inherited a gutted program that went a combined 28-66 in Crean's first three seasons only to produce Indiana's most memorable regular season in nearly a decade.
It'll continue in the third-round Saturday where the Hoosiers will try to advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2002 when the Hoosiers reached the Final Four as a No. 5 seed.
Wendell McKines led New Mexico State (26-10) with 15 points and nine rebounds points, but the champions of the Western Athletic Conference had too much trouble getting shots up against Indiana's defense in the early stages of the second half after trailing by seven at halftime. Bandja Sy added 12 off the bench and Daniel Mullings scored 10.
But while the Aggies were fighting just to get their shots off, the Hoosiers were running off multiple screens and finding themselves open for layups.
If there were any nerves considering their lack of tournament experience, the Hoosiers showed none early. Waterford and Zeller ran free for dunks and before the first media timeout Indiana already had a 10-point lead. But sloppiness on both sides overshadowed a first-half where each team shot better than 50 percent. The Aggies had 13 turnovers while Indiana gave it up nine times.
Zeller sat the final 3 minutes of the half after picking up his second foul but the Aggies had three missed shots and three turnovers to close the half and went to the break trailing 35-28.
The first half was just a precursor to the Hoosiers' offensive efficiency the final 20 minutes. Indiana hit its first three shots and 11 of 16 to start the half. No one was hotter than Hulls. After hitting just one shot in the first half, Hulls scored 11 straight during one stretch including a trio of 3-pointers, the last of which gave Indiana a 62-41 lead with 11:14 left.
New Mexico State awakened, making sure Hulls didn't get open looks and started knocking down some of its own shots. A 10-2 Aggies run, capped by Sy's 3-pointer, cut the deficit to 64-51 with 7:40 remaining. The run stalled when Mullings was called for traveling in transition and the Aggies never got closer than 12.
The Hoosiers impressed playing without Verdell Jones III who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. The Hoosiers were ousted from the Big Ten tourney the day after Jones was injured.
New Mexico State has not won in the NCAAs since 1993 when the Aggies were a No. 7 seed and beat Nebraska in the first round before getting routed by Cincinnati in the second round. They've now lost in their tournament opener in their last five appearances.