PHOTO: Keith McGee had 19 points on Tuesday in the Lobos’ win against SDSU. (Courtesy/GoLobos.com)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The answer to New Mexico’s season-long point guard woes looks to have been on the Lobo bench all along.
And I’m not talking about JaQuan Lyle in street clothes.
UNM sophomore Keith McGee continued to show improvement — and show he’s deserving of his recent boost in playing time — and provided the Lobos and their starving fan base hope that this season still can live up to expectations. McGee had 19 points and led the typically-stagnant Lobo offense to its best showing of the season in a 83-70 victory against San Diego State.
McGee also gave the defensively-challenged Lobos a lift in their zone, by cutting off a number of SDSU drives to the lane.
When Lyle, a transfer from Ohio State, went down with an injury prior to the start of practice in September, it left UNM without an experienced starting point guard. It looked to be up to McGee or freshman Drue Drinnon to gain that experience as soon as possible and fill that role.
Instead, senior shooting guard Anthony Mathis was moved to the point, and while Mathis has been a scoring machine, both the Lobo offense and defense has looked out of sync all season — save the incredible 85-58 smack-down of then-unbeaten Nevada.
Tuesday was by far the Lobos’ best game since the rout of Reno. UNM had lost six of seven since that game.
While Drinnon hadn’t looked comfortable at the Division I level in his time on the floor, McGee showed promise but had too many turnovers. On Tuesday, both looked capable of running the point and turning the season around for New Mexico.
McGee probably should have been the starting point all along while taking his lumps during the learning process. But at least he’s there now, and New Mexico (10-12, 4-6) looks like a different bunch.
McGee came out on a mission, scoring eight of his team’s first nine points as UNM stayed close early. McGee then ignited the Lobos after they had fallen behind 33-22 in the final five minutes of the first half. New Mexico trailed 37-36 at the half, and it was McGee opening the second half with back-to-back scintillating hoops as the Lobos turned it into a blowout. UNM led 69-49 midway through the second half.
Mathis, who has been back at his true position as a shooting guard since the emergence of McGee, caught fire after a scoreless first half, and drained a pair of 3s during a 16-0 UNM run in the second half after the Lobos trailed 41-39.
Mathis had 17 points.
Yes, McGee still needs to work on the turnover bug. He had five of his team’s 16. But he was 8-of-10 from the floor, and the UNM offense was finally crisp and flowed in transition as it did against Nevada.
McGee’s quickness helped open up the inside for the Lobos, who got eight points and 11 rebounds from 6-foot-10 post Carlton Bragg.
The Lobos were 28-of-52 from the floor (53.8 percent) and had just as many rebounds (33) as San Diego State.
The Aztecs hit seven of their first eight shots to grab the early lead but had trouble penetrating the Lobo zone the rest of the night. SDSU’s 6-10 sophomore forward Jalen McDaniels was punishing UNM inside during much of the first half and finished with a game-high 25 points and added nine rebounds. But he wasn’t much of a factor in the game’s final 18 minutes.
I wrote it on Sunday, and will again: If the Lobos — who have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way — have another game or two like this, you will hear it repeatedly from the cliche crews: “Nobody wants to see this team in the Mountain West tournament.”
After Tuesday night, I wouldn’t disagree.
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.