Feature photo: Anthony Mathis (32) and Dane Kuiper (14) were honored on Senior Night after UNM’s 73-72 win against Boise State on Wednesday in the Pit. (Courtesy Cameron Goeldner/Daily Lobo)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
No, it did not save the season. And it didn’t do a whole lot to shake up the Mountain West conference standings.
And it certainly was not “Pit Game.”
What Wednesday was, however — when the New Mexico men’s basketball team took a thrilling 73-72 against visiting Boise State at Dreamstyle Arena — was a big-time, feel-good moment.
A senior moment.
A moment of elation and relief for a proud, loyal and punch-drunk fan base that desperately needed such a moment.
And maybe, just maybe, it was the moment that turns this season of heart-breaking, hand-wrenching and head-scratching losses completely around.
The Lobos (13-16, 7-10) moved a game ahead of Boise State (11-19, 6-11) into a tie with Colorado State (12-18, 7-10) for seventh place in the 11-team league.
But this was about much more than the standings. With just one regular season game remaining, on Saturday at lowly Wyoming (7-23, 3-14), the Lobos have a shot at a three-game winning streak — and more importantly — about snatching some momentum heading to Las Vegas for the MW tournament.
It was also about the Lobos’ two seniors — guards Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper — who have endured four topsy-turvey seasons and two coaching staffs without ever hanging their heads or tossing blame. They were honored on Senior Night in their final home game.
And it was a touching moment as well, as both Kuiper and Mathis wiped sweat off their brows and tears from their eyes — with loved ones by their side — just before their post-game ceremony.
During the game, Mathis did his thing with a pair of 3s to reach the century mark for the season. He’s just two 3s shy of Kevin Henry’s single-season record, set two decades ago.
But it was Kuiper, who has seen limited playing time in recent weeks because of chronic knee injuries, who stole the show.
Just when it looked as if UNM was ready to drop a heart-breaker, the huge-hearted Kuiper made a steal in the final seconds to seal the emotional victory.
“It felt great that I could contribute something to the team and win a game by (getting the steal),” Kuiper said. “I just saw him bring that ball up and I swiped at it, and I got it. So it’s a great feeling, on Senior Night especially.”
(SEE VIDEO OF KUIPER’S STEAL BELOW)
“Dane Kuiper is one of the best defenders I’ve ever played with, or against,” Mathis said. It’s a picture-perfect ending.”
Silent, but stellar start
On Wednesday night, the Lobos took the Dreamstyle area floor for the final time this season — hoping to avoid a jaw-dropping eighth home loss in what was once one of the most feared arena in the land. Heck, one of the most feared on earth.
But there was little energy in the stands, and not a whole lot of folks in the those seats. Which was understandable after all the twists and turns and disappointments of a season that was supposed to be so magnifico.
The Lobos, however, brought the energy to the fans. The first half was, possibly, the most grit and tenacity the Lobos have shown all season.
It was a thing of beauty.
They rebounded well, shot well, played outstanding defense, pounded the ball inside the paint and ran the floor like the team predicted to battle for the MW title and battle for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s the perfect way to end,” Mathis said. “We all finally came together and played for one another. Everyone kept saying ‘let’s do it for the seniors’ and I really appreciate it. It’s been a crazy year and to just finally come together and win one of those close games (is great.)”
Former McDonald’s high school All-American Carlton Bragg was a monster on both ends of the floor, sophomore point guard Keith McGee was flying all over the floor, Corey Manigault was a dominating offensive presence in the paint and Vance Jackson was burning nets.
The typically turnover-plagued Lobos simply weren’t. They raced all over the floor, contesting nearly every shot and and finished the first half with a 41-29 lead. They actually blocked more shots than committed turnovers (5-4).
New Mexico looked like a season bunch on the way to a much-needed blowout. But it still had to play another 20 minutes.
And as been the case far too many times this topsy-turvy season, it took just a few minutes into the second half to realize this was going to be another struggle.
A 9-0 Boise State run tied the game at 53-53 with 10 minutes left, and the Broncos were about to take the lead when Pat Dembley drove for a layup and kissed it off the glass in front of a very nervous and quiet crowd.
Enter the 6-foot-10 Bragg from seemingly nowhere. Bragg, who in the first half had the Lobos’ most vicious slam dunk of the season, one that left the backboard shaking all the way through the Broncos’ next possession, swatted Dembley’s shot off the backboard, leading to a fast break.
At the other end was Kuiper, who drained a huge 3. Vance Jackson came right back with a sweet drive and the lead was five.
But it just wasn’t going to be easy. A 3 from BSU’s Alex Hobbs and a pair of free throws by sweet-shooting Jessup tied it 58-58. And it was game on the rest of the way.
Boise State, which hadn’t led since 10-8 in the opening minutes, scored five straight points to move in front 69-68 with 2:28 remaining.
A pair of Bragg free throws put the Lobos back up 70-69 with 2:06 left, but 15 seconds later Jessup — who had a game-high 23 points — drained a long 3 with a pair of hands in his face, and the Pit fell silent as the Broncos led 72-70.
Then came the biggest shot of the night, and the biggest roar — maybe of the entire season. Sophomore Makuach Maluach launced a 3 in front of the hushed crowd, officially listed as 10,279 but in reality thousands less than that.
It soon sounded like 20,279. Maluach hit nothing but net and the silence turned to thunder. The Lobos led 73-72.
But there was still 1:27 remaining. And what a wild 87 seconds.
Jessup drove by a defender and had an open layup for the lead. But the ball wouldn’t fall and Bragg ripped it down. UNM ran some clock, and Jackson took the 3. Miss — but Bragg with another board and 35 ticks left.
Again, UNM ran clock and Maluach launched a 3 that, basically, could have ended it. But he missed and the ball went out of bounds after a battle for the board.
Officials review the replay — Lobo ball with 9 seconds left.
Lobos inbound ball. Bragg gets fouled and heads to the line for two.
So much for the breaks. Bragg misses both foul shots, Jessup grabs the rebound and here we go again.
If there is one team, however, that has had a more disappointing season than UNM, it’s Boise State. The Broncos entered the game on a five-game losing streak and three league setbacks by two points or less or in overtime.
Make it six straight losses and four by two points or less or overtime.
Kuiper, the Lobos defensive standout the past two years, made the standout defensive play of his career. As Hobbs dribbled to the right wing, Kuiper reached and batted it away, saved it from going out of bounds and tossed it backwards as the clock expired.
It was one helluva moment. A senior moment. A moment to remember.
And a moment that provides hope of more moments to come.
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.
— Lobo Basketball (@UNMLoboMBB) March 7, 2019