Featured photo: Courtesy/GoLobos.com
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
In one night, the New Mexico Lobo men went from being a talented team of transfers with unrealized potential to something quite different.
One heckuva a team.
In one of the greatest transformations since Lon Chaney, these Weir’s Wolves put on a jaw-dropping show of team chemistry and manhandled sixth-ranked and previously undefeated Nevada 85-58 on Saturday night in a flat-out incredible atmosphere in the Pit.
UNM trailed just twice all evening — 2-0 and 3-2.
Yes, there is still an awful long way to go. And the Mountain West play just started. But Saturday night (Jan. 5) in Dreamstyle Arena will long be remembered as one of the greatest games in Pit history — and helped stamp out the memories of Nevada’s last visit in 2016.
This wasn’t simply a Pit game. It was one of the Pit games. It was a Norm Ellenberger-esque type of Lobo team on the floor.
The crowd, announced at 12,702, was a throwback to the days of 18,000 and was champing at the bit from the get-go. The Lobos (8-6, 2-0 MW) kept it rocking the entire night. The margin of victory was the program’s largest ever over a top-10 team. Nevada fell to 14-1, 1-1.
It was the perfect fusion of Pit intensity, a visiting undefeated and top-10 ranked opponent and a talented, well-coached squad that was simply outstanding.
This was the Pit at its finest. This was the Lobos at their finest.
USE YOUR NOODLE: The last time Nevada came to the Pit — nearly two years to the date — it left, having taken advantage of one of the most legendary chokes in college basketball history. New Mexico had a 25-point lead with 11 minutes remaining – including an 11-point lead with 1:03 left – and lost 105-104 in double-overtime.
The game likely changed the path of then-Lobo coach Craig “Noodles” Neal, who was fired after the season.
The game was national news — still is. It is part of the montage on ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt’s weekly “Bad Beats” segment.
You never got the feeling it could happen again on Saturday. The biggest run Nevada had all night was 6-0, when it closed the first half with a 3-point buzzer beater and opened the second half with a slam dunk and a free throw. That trimmed the Lobo lead to 38-29. New Mexico then led 40-31, but that was the last time the Wolf Pack would be within single digits.
Mathis, one of just two current Lobos on the team for that debacle, came right back with his own 6-0 run to make it 46-31, and the blowout was back on.
POINT OF INTEREST: Speaking of Van Pelt, those of us who follow point spreads have long had a saying about the Lobos being an underdog at home. If you can get points in the Pit, jump on it.
In other words, whenever the visiting team comes to Albuquerque as the favorite, more times than not, you will have a winning bet by backing the Lobos.
Nevada was a 15-point favorite on Saturday. I know Arizona was a heavy favorite here last year, but I don’t think by 15. I can’t remember New Mexico being a bigger dog at home.
IN THE ZONE: Lobo coach Paul Weir’s zone defense looks to be here to stay.
After being burned game-after-game by opponents driving to the hoop at will, the Lobos were outstanding in winning their second straight game while playing exclusively zone defense.
While UNM was fortunate to escape at Air Force with a 65-58 earlier in the week — thanks to the Falcons missing open shots all night — it was a different scenario on Saturday. The defense was stellar all evening.
Nevada shot a woeful 33.3 percent from the floor (19 of 57) and 18.2 percent from 3-point range (4 of 22).
It didn’t hurt New Mexico’s cause that the Wolf Pack was 10-of-21 from the foul line until making their final six with the game far, far out of reach.
SO DEEP: New Mexico is so deep and has so much talent that it can keep running new bodies into the game who are capable of big-time scoring bursts. But if this season ends up being one of UNM’s all-time best, Mathis will certainly go down as one of the fans’ all-time favorite players.
I love watching the dude. He plays with grit and he plays with passion. And he never seems to get rattled.
He is capable of scoring anywhere in the frontcourt and isn’t afraid to take 30-footer. If he misses a few in a row, it’s OK. The opposing defense knows he can light it up, and he eventually will.
When he drains the deep 3 — he was 4–of-12 on Saturday — it does much more than add to the scoreboard.
He not only ignites the crowd, but he opens up the floor inside for the Lobos’ big men.
On top of everything else, Mathis is a great team guy, andhe has a great attitude.
GOING TO JACKSON: New Mexico’s Vance Jackson, who definitely has NBA talent, has struggled at times by looking to score instead of looking for teammates. That was far from the case on Saturday, as Jackson hit 7 of 11 shots, and had a trio of 3s for 18 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high seven assists.
He had one of the key plays midway through the first half, coming up with a steal then hustling down to score on a put-back to give his team is 17-7 lead.
In the second half, Jackson started and capped a scintillating 15-3 run to put the Lobos up 74-48, sending the place into you absolute bedlam.
SO BOARD: Besides struggling defensively, the Lobos have had bugaboos with far too many turnovers and way too few rebounds. That wasn’t the case against the physical Wolf Pack. New Mexico had a 47-37 advantage on the boards, including 14-10 on the offense end, and made but nine turnovers to Nevada has 14.
CONFIDENCE BOOST: After the game, Weir talked about his frustrations in pushing the right buttons to get this talented team to play with passion. Now that it finally has, the confidence could get it rolling toward being the Mountain West contender many expected.
Now, the key to Tuesday night’s home game against UNLV is not being over-confident and resting after such an incredible performance.
OVER AND OUT: I was pleasantly surprised. OK, pleasantly stunned. I was certain the cliché and silly chant of “over-rated, over-rated,” which just about every fan base in America chants when its underdog home team upsets a top-ranked foe, would be coming.
I’ve never understood that chant. Doesn’t that take away from the big win? If the opponent is overrated, doesn’t that mean it wasn’t so good after all?
However, it never came. The boisterous Pit just kept celebrating all night. Awesome! I loved not hearing that!
UNIFORMITY: With only four players back from last season and only two — seniors Mathis and Dane Kuiper — having played at UNM for four years, I have questioned if the Lobos truly knew what it meant to represent New Mexico, the university, the Pit and the program.
Maybe it was the new duds. The yellow Land of Enchantment uniforms aren’t exactly making a fashion statement, but they may have been the key to getting all the new guys to buy into everything New Mexico.
So, from the guy who coined the “We Are New Mexico” mantra (yes me, not the fired UCLA coach), I have to say — these Lobos Are New Mexico!
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.