ABOVE: Anthony Mathis, front, complains to official Winston Stith, far left, after the latter made an incorrect call late in New Mexico’s 68-66 loss to Utah State. (CBS screen shot)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Let’s start at the end.
Or almost the end.
And what many Lobo fans, media, players and even coaches said ended New Mexico’s hopes of upsetting Utah State on Saturday afternoon in the Pit.
By the way, “The Lobos trying for an upset in the Pit”?
Certainly sounds odd, but it’s becoming the norm this season. On Saturday, UNM was a 7-point underdog to Utah State (15-5, 5-2 MWC) in the Pit.
At least UNM (9-11, 3-5) covered – but still lost its sixth home game during this underachieving season.
The Aggies’ Abel Porter drained a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left to give his team a 68-66 victory against UNM. But it was a turnover 30 seconds earlier that ended up being the biggest postgame topic.
The Lobos had the ball in the backcourt with 38.9 seconds remaining after a tie-up on the floor. Senior Anthony Mathis brought the ball up against light pressure, but as he approached midcourt he jumped and threw the ball backward to Vance Jackson – who also jumped as he grabbed the ball, then landed in the frontcourt.
It was called a backcourt violation, but the replay showed that Mathis never crossed midcourt. It should not have been called.
After the game, the league office admitted the call — by veteran official Winston Stith — was incorrect.
Was it a huge play?
Did it prevent the Lobos from winning?
Was it just like the blown call at the end of the New Orleans Saints loss to the LA Rams in last week’s NFC Championship game?
Wow – that is really a stretch.
The Saints could have run the clock down and kicked a field goal to win.
The Lobos still would have had to run another 25 or so seconds off the clock without a turnover –- and they have been plagued by turnovers all season — then hit two free throws or score a field goal, and still prevent Utah State from hitting a 3 at the other end.
A 3-pointer, say, like Porter’s open look that won it.
My biggest issue with the play was: Why was Mathis leaping and throwing the ball across the court as is — to a leaping Jackson, trying to jump in the front court? It wasn’t a sound play fundamentally. Granted, Utah State didn’t need to foul to get the ball back, but you want your best free throw shooter and shooter, period – yep, Mathis – with the ball as much as possible in that situation.
Jackson gave the officials an excuse to make the call by leaping and fumbling the pass and trying to make sure he was jumping in the front court. It sure must have looked like a violation to the announced 10,752 fans, the Lobo coaches and all the Lobo players except for Mathis.
Just look at the reactions of Weir and all of the New Mexico players on the floor. Nobody except for Mathis protested the call. Not even Jackson, with ball, or Weir.
There certainly were a lot of “experts” after replays and social media posts.
Yes, it was a bad call. But compared to the one that cost the Saints?
This wasn’t like one of the Aggies went helmet to helmet on Mathis while blasting his body to force the turnover. That play probably cost the Saints a spot in the Super Bowl.
The botched call in the Pit on Saturday — possibly — cost the Lobos a shot at a .500 record. And again, there was a heckuva lot more than could have happened in the basketball game. Like another air-ball layup by Bragg, like the previous possession.
And then there’s the the fact that the Lobos had the ball and the lead at least five times in the final five minutes and didn’t trail the final four minutes until the Porter 3.
But they couldn’t find a way to put it away.
And on the final shot, better defense could have made a difference.
Mathis left Porter to double team star junior guard Sam Merrill, who started to drive with the ball just inside the key. Merrill passed to Porter, and UNM’s Makuach Maluach started to slide over to pick up Porter — then immediately drifted into no-man’s land towards the left corner – covering nobody – and allowing Porter the open shot before Mathis could get back on him.,
LIGHT MY FIRE: A lack of energy and passion again looked to be an issue for New Mexico in the first half. After Carlton Bragg opened the game with a jumper for a 2-0 Lobo lead, the Aggies ran off nine straight points and led 19-6 midday through the first half after a slam by 6-foot-11 freshman Neemias Queta.
Utah State led 27-13 with four minutes left in the half and led 36-27 at the break.
The second half, however, was one of the best 20 minutes UNM has had all season. The fire and determination was much better, and the fans were back in the game, big-time.
MICROWAVE MATHIS: Mathis went scoreless in the first half and took just three shots. The Utags did a nice job of defending Mathis away from the ball in the opening 20 minutes, but Mathis – who USU coach Smith said “is like another Vinny ‘The Microwave’ Johnson – got loose in the second half and finished with 16 points, hitting four 3-pointers. Carlton Bragg was strong inside with a team-high 18 points and six rebounds.
Jackson added 13 points and seven rebounds.
ON AND ON: The same problems continue for the Lobos. The lack of an experienced point guard makes UNM’s offense look choppy, and the Lobos once again allowed too many back-cuts, open layups and open jumpers in the lane. The perimeter defense was again weak as well with Utah State going 9-of-18 from 3-point range. The Lobos missed their first nine 3-pointers before finishing 8-of-24 (33.3 percent).
Points in the paint: USU 30, UNM 18.
Rebounds: USU 37, UNM 32.
Turnovers: USU 11, UNM 13.
And on it goes.
BASKETBALL INSTINCT: The Lobos’ still haven’t found that consistent go-to guy, and I really don’t think one will emerge. Utah State had a couple of guys who qualify as such for their bunch; Sam Merrill (22 points) and Brock Miller (16 points). Both can create their own shot, score clutch baskets and have great basketball instincts.
Many of the Lobos lack those same basketball instincts, which has shown throughout the season.
WALK-ON — AND ON: Porter’s shot capped a great week for him individually. He was a walk-on who Smith just put on scholarship earlier in the week. The 6-3 sophomore had six points, six boards and four assists.
He was the second walk-on to stick a dagger in the Lobos this week. On Tuesday, UNLV walk-on Nick Blair had a career-high 26 points in the Rebels’ 74-58 romp of UNM in Las Vegas.
… While the “blame the ref brigade was at full strength after the game, it should be noted that USU’s dismal foul shooting (5-of-11) helped the Lobos get back in the game. New Mexico was 12-of-15 from the line. Utah State entered the game shooting 76 percent from the line.
… The most glaring difference in the game was how crisp and smoothly the Aggies ran their offense compared to the Lobos.
On Utah State possessions, the ball usually whipped around and ended up in the hands of an open shooter. Even more impressive, was the way Utah State boxed out typically had at least one player in position for a possible offensive rebound.
At the other end of the floor, the Lobos’ shots were much more contested and on many occasions, two or three Aggies had perfect box-outs for defensive boards.
… Junior forward Corey Manigault, who started five of the Lobos’ first 14 games, played just three minutes on Saturday and had two points. He’s had discipline issues during the season, and is obviously in Paul Weir’s doghouse.
Freshman point guard Drue Drinnon did not play. Weir has said that Drinnon has been in “concussion protocol,” but the coach wasn’t asked about Drinnon during Saturday’s news conference.
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.