PHOTO: Jordan Caroline (24) had 13 points and 13 rebounds in Nevada’s 91-62 blowout of New Mexico.
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The script was written long before Saturday’s tip-off, as Nevada took the stage against New Mexico with a Christians/Lions-type scenario expected for the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball game.
The Lobos did nothing to flip that script.
Sixth-ranked Nevada acted out each scene with perfection on the way to a 91-62 blowout of New Mexico.
Just more than one month after suffering its only defeat of the season — an eye-popping 85-58 humiliation to New Mexico in Dreamstyle Area — Nevada promised big-time revenge when the two met again.
Just to add fuel to the fire, the NCAA Tournament’s debut brackets came out earlier on Saturday. And despite its lofty national status, Nevada was only made a No. 4 seed in the South — had the tournament pairings been officially announced on Saturday.
The official tournament pairing are still more than a month away, but the Wolf Pack (23-1, 10-1) obviously feel they still need to make plenty of believers.
The Lobos weren’t about to prevent them from doing so.
This wasn’t the Lobo team we saw on Jan. 5 in the Pit against Nevada, or even the bunch we saw during UNM’s impressive 83-70 win against San Diego State on Tuesday night at home.
It was, however, the same Lobo team (10-13, 4-7) we have seen so many times during this head-scratching season.
New Mexico came out in turquoise uniforms. It soon looked to be tossing turquoise stones around the floor and at the basket.
In the first half, the Lobos had 14 turnovers, were pounded on the boards and were horrible from the floor. Their defense was again porous and they never led.
Nevada, a 21-point favorite, had that margin covered midway through the first half. The Wolf Pack grabbed leads of 10-2, 25-4 and 34-9. The latter came with less than seven minutes left in the first half, with the Lobos having more turnovers (11) than points (9) to that point.
Lobo sophomore Makuach Maluach was the only Lobo who showed some grit in the first half. The rest of the team looked intimidated and fully-expecting the predicted blowout. Maluach had 11 points in the first half, but the Lobos were 10-of-36 (27.7 percent) and 4-of-18 from 3-point range (22.2 percent) in the half. Nevada rolled to a 49-20 cushion before settling for a 51-26 advantage intermission.
Maluach finished with a team-high 19 points, going 7-of-11. UNM’s 6-foot-10 Carlton Bragg had 13 points and eight rebounds, but he was no match for the stronger, more physical Wolf Pack inside. Bragg was 4-of-10 from the floor and played just 19 minutes because of foul trouble.
Meanwhile, Nevada’s 6-11 Trey Porter and 6-7 Caleb Martin each scored 20 points for Nevada on combined 15-of-24 shooting with a combined 14 rebounds.
Six players, including all five starters, scored double figures for the Wolf Pack. Jordan Caroline added 13 points, 13 boards and three assists, but was just 4-of-15 from the field.
Nevada outrebounded the Lobos 49-34. UNM cut its turnovers back in a lack-luster second half that resembled an intramural game at Johnson Gym, but they still finished with 20 while Nevada had 17.
TO THAT POINT AGAIN?: The Lobos looked close to finally solving their point guard issues when sophomore transfer Keith McGee (8-of-10 for 19 points) had a huge game against San Diego State while freshman Drue Drinnon played well off the bench (3-of-3 for eight points).
Both took a big step back on Saturday. Drinnon got the start, but went 0-for-2 from the floor, 0-for-2 from the foul line with four turnovers and one assist. McGee had nine points, but was 4-of-14 from the floor with one assist and two turnovers.
FUTURE TENSE: With the Reno rout out of the way, the schedule really gets favorable for the Lobos the rest of the way.
The only remaining game in which the Lobos are sure to be underdogs (remember, SDSU was favored by only one point at UNM on Tuesday), is Feb. 20 at Utah State (18-5, 8-2).
Other than that, it’s home and away against San Jose State (0-10, 3-19), road against Wyoming (2-8, 6-17), home against Colorado State (4-7, 9-15), Boise State (6-5, 11-13) and Fresno State (8-3, 17-6). Those are six games — four at home — against teams with a combined 49-89 record.
A late-season run, could be a heckuva confidence builder for the Lobos heading into the Mountain West Conference tournament. But winning that league tournament, obviously, is the only way that UNM could make the NCAA Tournament.
The NIT? Never say never, but chances are slim, at best. A 10-game winning streak could change things, but right now these remaining games are more about getting some chemistry, experience — and improving fundamentals — for next season.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.