Photos: Courtesy of GoLobos.com except where noted.
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The past four years haven’t exactly been the stuff of a Hollywood script for Anthony Mathis.
Then again, there is still time.
And depending on what shakes out for Mathis and his New Mexico Lobo teammates during the next week or so, he, indeed, could be a heckuva story.
If not for Hollywood, for human spirit.
The 6-foot-3 guard came to UNM as a freshman under former coach Craig Neal during the 2015-16 season. But he hardly played during in his first two years under Neal and seriously considered just putting the game in his past.
“I’m not going to lie,” Mathis told Enchantment Sports last week. “Those first two years were super tough for me. It was frustrating. It was difficult. I contemplated if I really loved the game any more. I really did some soul searching.”
As a freshman, Mathis played an average of just 6.6 minutes a game and averaged just 2.3 points a game. Things got even more frustrating for Mathis as a sophomore. He played in just 10 games, averaging 6.4 minutes a contest and scoring 2.9 points a game.
He made as many field goals that entire season as games he played. Yep, a grand total of 10.
“I knew I had to get out,” he says.
Trying to soak it all in
Life under the coach called “Noodles” left Mathis’s career looking like a soggy bowl of pasta.
After those frustrating times and that soul-searching, Mathis decided he did still love the game. Just not at New Mexico.
“I talked to (Neal), and we both decided it was best for me to move on,” Mathis says. “I asked for my release, got it the next day and started talking to coaches around the country and scheduling (recruiting) visits.”
But before Mathis could hit the road, Neal did. The latter was fired following the 2016-17 season. Wins and fan interest had been hightailing it out of the program During Neal’s final three years, and after Neal was handed his walking papers a number of Lobos did the same and hightailed it as well.
Mathis was set to move along, but everything changed when Paul Weir was hired away from New Mexico State — where he led the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament in his only season there as head coach — as Lobo coach.
“We both were probably a little desperate at the time,” Weir told Enchantment Sports. “I didn’t have any players to field a team, and he probably didn’t have anywhere to go because he didn’t really have any stats or numbers from his first two seasons.
“It was kind of like falling into each other a little bit. I’m so glad we did. It’s been a great two years with him.”
The past two seasons have been a rollercoaster for the Lobos, but Mathis has been one of the few consistent rides. And tonight, Mathis — a fan favorite and one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in program history — will be honored along with fellow senior Dane Kuiper as they play their final home game in a Lobo uniform.
New Mexico (12-16, 6-10) plays host to Boise State (11-18, 6-10) in a Mountain West affair with little meaning in the big picture.
Tonight, however, will certainly provide Mathis a picture he can carry in his mind, heart and soul for the rest of his life.
“It will be emotional,” Mathis says, pausing to look around at the Pit that has become such a huge part of his life — and always will be.
“It’s hard to imagine what the feelings will be like, playing my final game here. It’s really going to be a great night. But it’s going to be sad, knowing that it’s over. It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to these fans.”
The feeling will be mutual.
One + one = a 3-spree
Just about this time two years ago, when Mathis and Weir both had much to figure out, the two sat down in the coach’s new office.
There were decisions to make but not much to base them on. Mathis wanted to go somewhere where he could play.
It was a crap-shoot for both.
“It was interesting,” Weir says. “I met with all the players, obviously, when I got here. (Mathis) was one of the ones who said he was leaving. I was trying to get my feet under me and figure out all that was going on. And part of that was watching a lot of their games from the previous season. To get a feel for the guys.
“Unfortunately, Anthony didn’t play that much, so there wasn’t a lot to go on. But I kept noticing how enthusiastic he was on the bench. I kept saying, ‘Look at this kid at the end of the bench. He’s always excited. He’s always into the game. He’s waving his towel, he’s cheering on his teammates, he’s being terrific.’ I loved his attitude.”
Weir then did something that many college coaches don’t.
He was honest.
“Quite frankly, there was nobody here.” Weir said. “Everybody was leaving. I basically told Anthony, ‘Look man, I can’t guarantee much playing-wise because I haven’t seen much of you. I didn’t recruit you, I didn’t see you in high school and there is little to watch from you last season. But if you come with that kind of energy every day, I’ll make it work.”
“He said, ‘Sure let’s try it.’ ”
Mathis said, “I decided I wanted to stay where I was at. I said, ‘I’m finishing it out.’ ”
And Mathis was just getting started.
The Lobos opened with a 3-8 record last season and were just 12-14 when everything started coming together. They improved weekly and ended up winning seven straight to get to the Mountain West Conference tournament title game. where they came within a whisper of beating San Diego State for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Mathis? He was brilliant. With no more Neal, Mathis could stand.
And run, press, dribble and shoot.
He drained 98 of 207 3-pointers on the season, the third most made 3s in school history, and was fourth in the nation at 47.3 percent from behind the arc. He averaged 12.7 points a game, hit 86 percent from the foul line and helped ignite hope in Loboville that 2018-19 would be special.
Don’t stop believing; Mathis’ journey rolls into record books
Enter tonight, and some irony.
Mathis has exactly 98 made 3s again this season (in 229 attempts for 42.8 percent). But with a minimum of three games remaining, barring injury, he’s a lock to smash the school’s single-season record of 102, held by Kevin Henry since the 1998-99 season.
How about setting that record in front of the home crowd tonight?
“That would be something,” Mathis said with his eyes twinkling.
The Lobos close the regular season at Wyoming on Saturday, then play at least one game in next week’s Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas.
There’s no masking the fact that it has been a disappointing season for the Lobos, who were picked to finish third in the preseason poll after going 19-15 last year and bringing in plenty of transfer talent.
But while there have been many low moments, there have also been some really high ones.
UNM’s season opener at Cal State-Northridge was tied 84-84 with seconds left. Mathis time, baby.
He took an inbounds pass in the backcourt, raced past the time line and fired from 30 feet or so.
Lobos win 87-84.
And, of course, there was the 85-58 destruction of then-sixth-ranked and unbeaten Nevada in Dreamstyle Arena in January.
“I have never felt anything like that,” he says. “It was such an amazing day; the crowd was something I’ll never forget. Every possession, every bucket — it was so amazing. Those are the games you come to college for.”
But there have been far too many losses, especially of the blow-out and head-scratching variety. Still, Mathis has been steady. His long-range missiles are jaw-dropping, and he has made a national name for himself as a guy who worked his butt off in the gym to get everything out of his God-given abilities — and then some.
A natural shooting guard, Mathis was more than willing to take the point guard slot after Ohio State transfer and would-be starting point JaQuan Lyle was injured before the start of official practice last fall.
“I really want to do whatever coach Weir wants me to do to make the team better,” says Mathis, who is majoring in criminology and wants to someday work for the FBI but first wants to give professional basketball a shot. “I would say I feel more comfortable off the ball at the 2-guard, but coach giving me the opportunity to play the point has been a great learning experience.
“The more positions you learn, the better you understand the game.”
Mathis says he has an understanding of much more than just basketball after his four years here. He’s has seen some very tough times and some very good ones.
Weir said he will always appreciate what the kid from Oregon has done for the program.
“He’s an awesome, great kid. He’s an exceptional shooter but has really worked at other parts of his game and is just a great, unselfish teammate. It’s been an amazing two years for him personally,” Weir says.
“He’s good in the classroom and has given everything and anything I could ask for.”
And now it’s time to receive.
Mathis and Kuiper — who have played ball with and against each other since the sixth grade — will get plenty of love tonight in the Pit.
But as emotional as it should be, is there a part of Mathis that wonders what could have been if he had left UNM — or had never come in the first place?
“No, not at all,” Mathis says, again slowly looking around the Pit while sitting on the bottom row of the student section, soaking up every last moment. “I’ve learned so much about myself as a person; so much about life. I wouldn’t take it back for anything. I’ve had experiences, good and bad, that will help me later in life.
Right now, I’m just trying to embrace every moment. There is only so much time left here.
“I’ve had so many ups and down. In hindsight, it came super-quick, but it’s also been a long journey.
“And a journey I will remember the rest of my life.”
UNM 3-POINT FIELD GOALS MADE / SEASON
1. Kevin Henry 1998-99 102
2. Roman Martinez 2009-10 99
*3. ANTHONY MATHIS 2018-19 9
(tie) Anthony Mathis 2017-18 98
5. Clayton Shields 1996-97 96
6. Marlow White 1993-94 94
(tie) Ruben Douglas 2002-03 94
8. Troy DeVries 2004-05 93
9. Clayton Shields 1997-98 90
10. Chad Toppert 2006-07 85
(tie) Chad Toppert 2007-08 85
UNM 3-POINT FIELD GOALS MADE / CAREER
1. Clayton Shields 1994-98 285
2. Chad Toppert 2005-09 266
3. Rob Robbins 1987-91 264
4. Ruben Douglas 2000-03 218
*5. ANTHONY MATHIS 2015-PRESENT 214
6. Phillip McDonald 2008-12 207
(tie) Charles Smith 1993-97 207
8. Kendall Williams 2010-14 205
(tie) Roman Martinez 2006-10 205
10. Kevin Henry 1997-00 197
Tonight: Boise State at New Mexico, 7 p.m.
Pack the Pit and Senior Night
$10 tickets (remaining bench seats) and $2 popcorn
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than 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.