Photo: Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor capped his team’s 81-73 win against New Mexico on Saturday with a steal and slam. Taylor had a team-high 26 points. (Mark Smith/Enchantment Sports)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The New Mexico men’s basketball team isn’t about to raise the white flag and give up on the season.
“Absolutely not,” said Lobo senior guard Anthony Mathis. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
But it certainly doesn’t look like the Lobos will be hoisting any other flags or banners this season, either.
On Saturday, it was more of the same for New Mexico in an 81-73 to Fresno State in Dreamstyle Arena — The Pit.
There’s no way to spin this one. It was yet another bad loss. A loss that was a collective slap in the face to all of those holding out hope for a late-season Lobo run.
It was the seventh loss for UNM in the Pit this season — a season that looks destined to go down as one of the most frustrating and underachieving in program history.
Seven losses in the Pit? Against a less-than stellar non-conference schedule and playing in the MWC? And with no Lobogate?
Times, indeed, are tough for those still attending the deconstructed Pit.
The fans were still there on Saturday — thanks, in part, to a “Razzle Dazzle” promotion that helped fill the place with young cheer-dance girls and their parents.
The crowd, announced at 12,494, gave the Lobos (11-14, 5-8) a boost many times. But there were few times the Lobos returned the love.
The two actually meshed quite well late in the first half when the Lobos used a 16-5 run to close the period with a 38-35 lead. And it certainly looked good for the home team just after the second half started.
A Corey Manigault bank shot and a Mathis 3 in the first minute of the second half boosted the UNM run to 21-5 and gave the Lobos a 43-35 advantage. It certainly had the feeling of the New Mexico’s 83-70 win against San Diego State earlier this month in the Pit, when UNM dominated the second half on the way to an easy victory.
Maybe the Lobos had that feeling, but they soon forgot about the execution part of the game that made the difference vs. SDSU.
This was another step back.
But were there any steps forward for New Mexico?
During post-game interviews in the media room and on radio, Lobo coach Paul Weir fielded the usual softball questions about what areas the Lobos are making improvement.
Well, the Lobos were much more aggressive than usual in rebounding, pounding the smaller Bulldogs 40-33 on the boards. UNM also outscored Fresno State 22-20 in the paint.
A lot of those stats had to do with Fresno State’s 6-foot-8 junior Nate Grimes getting into early foul trouble and playing just 20 minutes all night. Grimes had a field day during the Bulldogs’ 82-70 win against UNM a few weeks back in Fresno (Calif.) He had 19 points and 19 boards in that one, but was held to seven points and four boards on Saturday.
At times, UNM’s zone defense was solid and unlike its usual sieve self. Instead of allowing FSU guards Deshon Taylor and Braxton Huggins to carve them up by driving to the hole, the Lobos were content to let the Bulldogs fire 3-pointers all night. Fresno State (19-6, 10-3) shot 37.8 percent from behind the arc, not bad but not great. However, when you launch 37 3-pointers — which the Bulldogs did — that percentage is enough to make a huge difference. They were 14-of-37.
Many of the 3s came from long range, but they were usually open looks and they went down often enough to turn the tide in this one.
Another area of improvement was drawing fouls. While the Bulldogs took 37 3s, the Lobos took the same number of free throws. UNM was 28-of-37 while the Bulldogs were 17-of-22 from the line.
Shooting 15 more free throws could have been the difference in winning and losing, but the Lobos started bricking from the line in the final minutes when they still had a chance.
Improvement, however, shouldn’t exactly be the topic at hand. It’s mid-February. Improvement should be measured in non-conference games, not with just five games remaining in the regular season.
It’s now or never time. Folks that keep asking about when the Lobos will turn the corner. Looks to me like they’ve raced through the intersection, without looking either way, on their way to the lower echelon of the league.
At the post-game news conference, Henry Tafoya asked Weir about the team’s attitude heading into the final weeks (story continues below quote).
Other Tick Takes:
The Bulldogs were scrappy and had active hands.
Because the Lobos, especially the big men, tend to put the ball on floor too much, they get it slapped away quite often. UNM had four turnovers in the first four minutes and six in the first eight minutes. The Lobos cut those back and finished the game with 13.
The opening few minutes of the second half mirrored the season. UNM can look unbeatable at times, then look capable of losing to any team in the nation at other times.
It was four consecutive daggers by the Bulldogs — three by former New Mexico State guard Huggins — that turned this one around midway through the second half. UNM led 57-55 until the 3-point barrage put FSU up 67-61 with just under seven minutes left.
Taylor finished with 26 points and five assists while Huggins scored 19.
But it was the Lobos’ ineptness to make free throws down the stretch — and, as usual, missing layups throughout the game — and the inability to stop the Bulldogs in crunch time that prevented New Mexico from getting an important Mountain West Conference victory.
UNM’s Vance Jackson had a huge game and continues to look like the team’s best all-around player. He was 8-of-15 from the floor, 4-of-6 from 3-point range and had 30 points and eight rebounds.
Sophomore point guard Keith McGee started as Lobo point guard, but got into early foul trouble. McGee, however, had a monster slam-dunk during the Lobo run late in the first half. He’s the real deal, and is the key if the Lobos are to make any noise at all in the final games.
Mathis played a team-high 33 minutes and had 13 points. He was hot again, going 3-for-5 from the floor — all from 3-point range — but FSU did a nice job denying him the ball much of the night. Mathis is leaving it all on the floor during his senior year, and has been a gentleman and has held his head high throughout the topsy-turvey campaign.
Mathis is an easy guy to root for, and it would be nice to see him finish the season with a flurry. He deserves it.
Manigault had one of his better showings with 16 points and six rebounds before fouling out. But Manigault, Carlton Bragg (1-of-6, seven points and 10 rebounds), Makuach Maluach (0-for-5 with five turnovers) and Jackson still miss far too many point-blank shots. It’s another of the season-long problems UNM has had. And a number of the missed layups don’t even make the stat sheet because they come on plays with fouls.
If there was such a stat, Bragg might just lead the nation in air balls from two feet.
There are many occasions when a Lobo big man has a clear shot inside while being fouled, but misses the field goal attempt instead of having an and-1 opportunity.
Freshman Drue Drinnon has good court vision, but still looks uncomfortable on the floor at this level. He should be fine in a year or so, but watching him trying to drive can be an adventure.
Senior Dane Kuiper started, but again wasn’t a factor in a league game. He was 0-for-2 from the floor and scoreless.
This was a key game. Could the Lobos sustain some momentum after destroying San Jose State earlier in the week? Could they beat a decent opponent to ignite a run and rise into top five for the MWC tournament?
Not on Saturday. The Lobos are tied with Air Force for seventh in the 11-team league.
Now it comes down to desperately needing a win at Utah State on Wednesday to just stay in the hunt for a first-round bye in the league tournament. A loss at USU, and the Lobos pretty much will secure themselves a spot in the March 13 stay-in games in Las Vegas.
The top five seeds avoid first-round games. But the Lobos are getting oh-so-close to wrapping up one of those bottom seeds.
UNLV is currently in fifth at 8-5. But even if New Mexico catches the Rebels, it will lose a tiebreaker to them. UNLV swept the Lobos this season, so it owns any possible tiebreaker between the teams.
The good news? At least cannon-fodder like San Jose State and Wyoming — two of the three teams UNM has defeated in the past 11 games — are in that bottom-of-the barrel bunch, and could be UNM’s first-round opponent in the tournament.
UNM still gets another shot at both the Spartans (3-21, 0-12) and Cowboys (6-19, 2-10) on the road during the regular season. The Lobos also have home dates with Colorado State (9-16, 4-8) and Boise State (11-15, 6-7).
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.