Photo: Utah State freshman Neemias Queta simply destroyed New Mexico’s big men in a 71-55 Aggie victory. The Lobos fell to ninth in the MWC. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
If you’re going to Vegas for the Mountain West Conference tournament to follow the New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team, you better have booked a flight that will get you there in time for all of Wednesday’s stay-in games.
There’s still no telling when the Lobos will play or who they will face, but it’s going to be on Wednesday March 13.
On Wednesday night (Feb. 20), the Lobos (11-15, 5-9) locked up a spot in the bottom five of the MWC regular season with a 71-55 loss at Utah State (21-6, 11-3). The Aggies, meanwhile, pulled within a half-game of first place Nevada. They have won 10 of their last 11 under first-year head coach Craig Smith.
USU 6-foot-11 freshman star Neemias Queta, who played limited minutes after getting into foul trouble in the teams’ last meeting in the Pit — a 68-66 Utah State win — tormented the Lobo big men all night on his way to 23 points, 10 rebounds and four assists and three blocked shots.
New Mexico is alone in ninth place in the 11-team league and trails fifth-place UNLV by four games with four games remaining. While the Lobos still play their fellow bottom feeders in their final four games (Boise State, Colorado State, Wyoming and San Jose State), four wins isn’t going to be enough to get UNM a bye in the first round.
Not that four wins is anywhere near a lock for a team that has won just three of its past 12.
And anyone who thinks the Lobos are better off playing in that first round because they can avoid sixth-ranked Nevada (24-2, 11-2) in the second round either has a crystal ball that would blind Nostradamus or is simply clueless.
Nevada has yet to wrap up the regular season crown, having lost 65-57 at surging San Diego State (17-9, 9-4) on Wednesday night. But even if the Wolf Pack do clinch the No. 1 seed — which is up for grabs — who knows how the 6th-through-11th positions will shake out?
Wednesday night was another ugly one for New Mexico. Lobo senior Anthony Mathis did all he could in on the first half — throwing in 14 points from all over the court — and UNM actually led 14-5 early. But it was too much Queta, too much rebounding for the Aggies and way too many of the same old mistakes, poor offensive execution and defensive lapses from the Lobos.
UNM hung tough for most of the first half, but once it gave up the lead at 32-31 late in the period, it would never be on top again. USU, which had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, led just 35-32 at the break. But the Aggies carved the Lobos apart in the second half.
Up 46-41 early in the second half, the Aggies — who struggled shooting the first half — finally started knocking down some shots and the Lobos started knocking the ball around once again. A 13-2 Utah State run made it 54-41 and the only questions left were if the Aggies would cover the 15-point spread they were favored by and how many turnovers New Mexico would make.
The Lobos had 18 turnovers while Utah State had eight. The Aggies had 21 assists to the Lobos’ 10.
That 15-point spread?
Queta was fouled on a rebound with 15.5 seconds left and hit a free throw, and the Lobos dribbled the clock out for the final margin.
If you had plus 15, I feel for you.
Once again, New Mexico’s defense was butchered in the second half of a game. USU had four dunks in the final 16 minutes and scored at will in the paint off its half-court offense.
Queta was so dominant, that UNM’s 6-10 post Carlton Bragg wasn’t only held without a field goal — he didn’t have a field goal attempt. He finished with two points, seven rebounds and fouled out in 29 minutes.
Mathis had a team-high 20 points but had just three in the game’s final 17 minutes.
Utah State starting guards Sam Merrill and Brock Miller were a hideous 4-of-29 from the floor, but the Aggies were so in control of the paint that it mattered not.
The first round of the MWC tournament will have the following games:
No. 6 vs. No. 11; No 7 vs. No. 10; No. 8 vs. No. 9. Which one of those spots the Lobos will have is yet to be determined, but they will have one of them.
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.