By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
For the second time in as many games, the New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team simply found a way to win at the end.
Again, New Mexico didn’t score many style points. But who’s going to remember that in March?
On Tuesday (Nov. 13), the Lobos (2-0) used a late burst to beat Iona 90-83.
Last week in its season-opener at CSUN, New Mexico got a 30-foot, 3-point bank shot from Anthony Mathis to win 87-84.
It wasn’t quite that dramatic in its home opener on Tuesday, but New Mexico had to rally from a 72-67 deficit, then used runs of 13-3 and 5-0 in the final minutes to take control.
Transfers Corey Manigault (Pitt/Indian Hills CC) and Vance Jackson (UConn) led the Lobos with double-doubles. Manigault had 20 points and 10 rebounds while and Jackson had 18 points and 12 boards. Jackson had three 3s and a three-point play in the first half. He finished 5-of-10 from behind the arc.
Many fans might simply think of CSUN (Cal State-Northridge) and Iona as the typical early-season Lobo cannon-fodder. But don’t be fooled. Those familiar with college basketball know that both teams have recent NCAA Tournament history – Iona a long-history – and each has the talent to make runs again this season.
CSUN (Big West) has made the NCAA field three of the last five years and Iona (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) five of the past seven years. True, they haven’t exactly been Final Four material. But they aren’t the November and December doormats Lobo teams under Dave Bliss and Steve Alford feasted upon.
Tuesday’s first half was sluggish – and long, with the teams combining for 25 turnovers and 27 fouls. But it was tied 39-39 at the break and stayed close until the final two minutes.
Maybe it wasn’t pretty. But it was interesting. And again, a victory to make Paul Weir 2-0 in his second year as Lobo head coach.
NO LY-LE, HE’S MISSED: The Lobos were counting on Ohio State transfer JaQuan Lyle to be star guard this season, but he was lost for the season with a torn Achilles in late September, just before the start of official practice in September.
Without the 6-foot-5 combo guard, Weir has had to do plenty of retooling. The Lobos, meanwhile, have been handling the ball like they have tools in each hand.
The combined 40 turnovers – 20 in each game – is a reason for concern. But it takes time to mesh, especially with so many newcomers, after losing a key starting guard. And there was improvement against Iona. On Tuesday, UNM cut the turnovers down from 13 in the first half to seven in the second.
NOT TO BRAGG, BUT: The Lobos were surprisingly outrebounded against Northridge and were down 18-17 on the boards at halftime against Iona.
But New Mexico ended up winning the rebound battle 41-34 against Iona, which was a huge factor in the win.
Yet again, it’s the “love takes time” theme of the new-look Lobos. There are only four returning players, after all. And there’s still a big part of the board bruisers on the bench.
The NCAA denied transfer Carlton Bragg (Kansas-Arizona State) eligibility during the first semester, but the physical 6-10 powerhouse will be allowed to play on Dec. 16 – and miss just seven games.
In the meantime, 6-11 sophomore post Vladimir Pinchuk is showing plenty of pop. He started, played a team-high 30 minutes, was 4-of-4 from the floor and had 10 points and seven boards. The 6-9 Jackson had a game-high with those 12 rebounds while the 6-9 Manigault was the game’s only other player with double digits on the boards with his 10.
Rebounding isn’t going to be an issue this season, folks.
SENIOR MOMENTS: With just more than 11 minutes left in the game, and the Lobos trailing 64-59, the Lobos’ only two seniors – Mathis and Dane Kuiper – had a combined three points. Mathis then drained back-to-back 3s to give the Lobos a 65-64 lead and added another 3 with 2:38 remaining to put UNM up 83-78.
Kuiper? Talk about zero to hero.
With the Lobos clinging to that 83-80 lead and the shot clock down to 1 second, Kuiper drained his first points of the game with the biggest of the game. His 3 from the right corner with 1:53 left rocked the Pit, and Mathis scored 18 seconds later on a fast break to ice it. Kuiper then had the team’s last field goal.
Mathis finished with 14 points. Kuiper had just five, but played 27 minutes and was a defensive stopper all night.
STILL THE PIT: No, it doesn’t have the feel of yesteryear. It’s definitely not the same as the Bob King/Norm Ellenberger or Gary Colson/Dave Bliss eras. It never will, thanks to the wrecking-ball disaster of a remodeling job completed in 2010.
And for the past five years, it hasn’t even had the feel of some of the Steve Alford-days.
But you know what? It’s still the Pit. It was there when the Lobos most needed it on Tuesday. And the Lobos were there when the Pit most needed them.
“A Pit Game,” the shady Bliss called it when the 18,000-plus overwhelmed the opposition and officials and simply willed the Lobos to victories.
This was the type of game UNM used to put in its pocket, regardless the deficit. That was dramatically lacking during the Craig Neal years.
The attendance was generously announced at 10,188 on Tuesday, and seemed to be waiting for a reason to erupt much of the night. The Lobos had a number of open shots that could have put the hammer down and got the crowd up and rocking.
Finally, Kuiper delivered that big blow. And the crowd wasn’t about to let this one slip away.
WHAT DOES VEGAS KNOW?: This will often be a theme in “Tick Talk” columns, especially now that “legal” sports bettering has come to New Mexico. I will have a detailed column about this down the road.
As for Tuesday’s Lobo/Gales game, it has Scott Van Pelt’s “Bad Beats” all over it. The Lobos had been favored by 7 early in the day, but Iona bettors brought it down to 6½.
The Lobos never even led by more than five until that 5-0 run made it 88-80 with 1:35 left.
It was 90-83 with 15 seconds left, but that was plenty of time for UNM to miss three free throws and Iona to miss a jumper with four seconds left.
So, what does Vegas know about two schools that are 2,015 miles apart and playing their second game of the season? You tell me.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades, and is one of the New Mexico’s most decorated sports journalists in 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.