By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The zone defense worked great for the New Mexico men’s basketball team on Wednesday night at Air Force Academy.
Thanks to the Air Force offense.
UNM coach Paul Weir tossed out his signature man-to-man defense and intense full-court press — something Lobo fans have complained about him playing since he took over the program last season — and used a 2-3 zone defense the entire way during the Lobos’ 65-58 victory in both teams’ Mountain West openers.
But it wasn’t pretty.
Once again, the Lobos didn’t outrebound a much smaller opponent. The teams tied 38-38 on the boards, but Air Force had a season-high 14 offensive rebounds to the Lobos’ 10.
The Falcons also forced a season-high 19 turnovers.
New Mexico did, however, snap its four-game losing streak to NCAA opponents while pushing its record to 7-6 in the sloppy affair.
Air Force is 5-8.
With UNM leading 61-58, Air Force’s Pervis Louder missed a wide open 3-pointer with 32 seconds left, then teammate Lavelle Scottie missed an open 2-foot bank shot with the same score.
Lobo senior Anthony Mathis made four free throws and had a steal in the final 24 seconds to finally put it away.
Even the AT&T television announcers seemed taken back by how many point-blank, wide-open looks the Falcons missed all night. But their performance – or lack thereof – came at a great time for the defensively-challenged Lobos, who have been eaten alive in their man-to-man defense all season.
Air Force was 24-of-63 (38.1 percent) for the night and a horrendous 2-of-15 (13.3 percent) at the 3-point line.
The Lobos were 23 of 53 (43.4 percent) from the floor and 9 of 26 on 3-pointers (34.6 percent).
BEAM ME DOWN, SCOTTIE:
TV play-by-play man Drew Goodman and analyst Joe Cravens both seemed stunned the Falcons were able to pound the ball into the paint so easily against the zone. They eventually concluded the Lobos’ strategy was to let them, leaving Falcons’ forward Lavelle Scottie wide-open short jumpers, hoping he would miss.
And oh, did he ever.
For much of the first half, Scottie looked frazzled that he was unguarded in the lane and kept hesitating before shooting.
He took seven of his team’s first nine shots – making just one – before finally connecting on back-to-back short shots. Scottie actually had a stellar first half scoring-wise, with 12 points – exactly his average per game. But he was just 7 of 20 from the floor, and hardly had a hand in his face the entire 20 minutes.
While the Lobos remained in the 2-3 zone during the second half, they eventually started getting at least a hand up when Scottie got a touch. He only took seven shots in the second half, finishing 10-of-27 for a season-high 20 points.
The most shots Scottie had taken in any previous game was 13.
SENIOR STEP-UP: The Lobos trailed 15-10 eight minutes into the game when Lobo senior Dane Kuiper made a series of outstanding plays – including a steal on an Air Force fast break that turned into a UNM fast break – to turn it around. Kuiper had eight points during a 16-2 Lobo run and UNM never trailed again.
The Lobos led 38-29 at the half without senior starting point guard Mathis scoring. But Mathis came out firing after intermission and scored 13 straight UNM points in the first seven minutes. He finished with a team-high 17 points.
LAY-DOWNS: The Lobos, who have made a mockery of layups this season with brick after brick, were the beneficiaries of such this time.
New Mexico led 53-40, 55-43 and 58-50 but couldn’t put the game away because of turnovers, and the Falcons scratched their way back on a number of occasions. But AFA couldn’t convert crucial layups as well as the open jumpers down the stretch.
WHAT THE MAL?: Lobo sophomore guard Makuach Maluach made an enormous error late in the game, then made up for it with an enormous field goal.
With the Lobos leading 59-54 and with possession and just more than two minutes left, Maluach drifted into the lane while UNM ran time off the clock. But Maluach apparently forgot to move.
Maluach moved into the lane and set up just shy of the foul line with 2:12 remaining while Mathis dribbled up top with no pressure. But Maluach didn’t move out of the lane until there was 2:01 left – and only when the remarkably generous officiating crew finally called him for a 3-second violation.
Air Force cut it to 59-56 with 1:41 left, but Maluach came back with a huge, contested fadeaway jumper with 1:14 remaining to boost the lead to 5.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in the state’s 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.