Featured photo: Vance Jackson had 26 points — including 17 in just more than a four-minute stretch — to lead the Lobos to a comeback win against Wyoming in the opening round of the MW tournament on Wednesday in Las Vegas. (Courtesy Cameron Goeldner/Daily Lobo)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
It’s about as cliché as can be, but there’s only one way to describe the New Mexico Lobos’ stay-in game on Wednesday in the Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas against Wyoming.
It was a big-time microcosm of their entire topsy-turvy, head-numbing season.
After a first half that pounded home the fact that the Lobos can lose to the very worst the MW has to offer came a second half that showed how they beat the very best in the league.
As a result, the season continues for at least one more day.
On Wednesday (March 13), the Lobos trailed by as many as 16 points late in the first half, still trailed by 13 with just 15 minutes left in the game, then used a scintillating Vance Jackson-led run to turn everything around in a 78-68 win against the lowly Cowboys.
And now for the neverending 2018-19 question: Will it finally be the game that turns the Lobos’ season around?
We’ll know more tonight (March 14) when seventh-seeded New Mexico faces second-seeded, and almost certainly NCAA Tournament-bound, Utah State (25-6) in the quarterfinals. The Aggies beat the Lobos in both their meetings this season; 68-66 in Albuquerque and 71-55 in Logan, Utah.
If Wednesday’s win doesn’t turn the season around, there are no tomorrows for a team that was expected to battle for the conference title but has one of the most underachieving campaigns — to this point — in school history.
The Lobos’ second half on Wednesday was as good as they have had all season and looked very similar to the one they had during their 85-58 blowout of then-unbeaten and sixth-ranked Nevada in early January.
But that first half? Oy vey. It rekindled memories of some of UNM’s most stomach-turning losses this season, to teams like San Jose State (4-27), Colorado State (12-20) and, yep, Wyoming (8-24).
The latter came just Saturday in Laramie, when the Cowboys ended UNM’s regular season 88-81.
Wednesday looked like it was going to be replay of the Laramie letdown – maybe worse. Wyoming never trailed in the half and was running the Lobos out of the Thomas & Mack Center with a 38-22 lead and just two minutes left in the half.
UNM trimmed it to 38-27 at the break to get a pulse but the statistics had flatlined. The Lobos were 8-of-29 shooting in the half (27.6 percent), 4-of-13 from 3-point range (30.8) and 7-of-12 from the line (58.3).
While the shooting never really got hot — outside of dunks and free throws — New Mexico did a number things in the second half that have been rare this season: pound the boards, cut down turnovers, run full-court-pressure like there was no tomorrow.
And turn a game around to win.
UNM finished 23-of-64 from the floor (35.9 percent) and 7-of-28 behind the arc (25 percent). But it came up huge from the foul line in the final 20 minutes, going 18-of-23 to finish 25-of-35 overall (71.4 percent).
Wyoming was 18-of-27 from the line (66.7) and missed some big ones in the second half. The Cowboys were also miserable 1-of-10 from 3-point land in the second half and 8-of-22 (36.4 percent) for the game.
The Cowboys led 47-34 with less than 15 minutes left and even when Lobos’ Carlton Bragg scored inside to make it 47-36, Wyoming still looked to be in control as both teams traded bricks and turnovers for the next few minutes.
Then came the explosion, courtesy of the 6-foot-9 Jackson – the slick sophomore transfer from UConn.
He scored the game’s next 13 points – dominating inside and out — to give the Lobos their first lead of the day at 49-47. After Wyoming star Justin James tied it at 49, UNM’s Vladimir Pinchuk scored on a three-point play off a nice assist from freshman Drue Drinnon, then Jackson made the most exhilarating play of the season.
He added two free throws 32 seconds later to give him a Michael Jordan-esque 17 points in just more than four minutes to make it 56-50.
Sure, the Lobos tried to let the Cowboys back in the hunt. Bragg, who probably leads the nation in missed dunks, missed a one-handed attempt off a beautiful inbounds pass, and James slammed went the other way for a monster jam. But Lobo sophomore Keith McGee made huge back-to-back field goals — a pretty bank shot followed by a driving three-point play — and the Cowboys clanked a number of free throws to prevent themselves from getting back on top.
UW was still within 62-61 with just more than three minutes left before Bragg scored a key hoop inside and sophomore Makuach Maluach had back-to-back slams to give the Lobos the type of victory fans had been thinking would be routine all season.
The Lobos whipped Wyoming 45-36 on the boards, including 11-4 on the offensive end. UNM pummeled the Cowboys 26-14 on the glass in the second half, including 8-0 on the offensive end. New Mexico also had just four turnovers in the second half, finishing with 11. The Pokes committed 16 turnovers.
After the loss in Laramie on Saturday, UNM coach Paul Weir, who has shouldered the blame all season, finally called out his talented team of transfers for not living up to their expectations much of the year.
He had plenty of reason to do so in the halftime locker room on Wednesday.
“(But) honestly, I didn’t,” he told Enchantment Sports. “I just kept them positive and sticking to the game plan.”
While the first half was a botched team effort, the second half was a superb team effort, with Jackson having one of the best halves in program history. He finished the game with 26 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Bragg played just 18 minutes because of foul trouble and some questionable calls but still had 10 points and seven rebounds while McGee — who also had foul trouble — scored 12 points in just 12 minutes.
Point guard Drinnon, a freshman who has shown much improvement down the stretch, scored just three points in 17 minutes but had three assists.
Maluach continued his late-season scoring surge with 13 points, but only was 3-of-11 from the floor — and two were those dunks.
James had a game-high 31 points, a team-high seven rebounds and four assists. But he committed seven turnovers, five in the second half.
The Way We Weir – And Are: I’ve been planning a postseason column about how Weir must remain coach, if the program is to take off, despite all the fan banter about wanting him ousted after just two years.
I’ll say it now and write more later: Are you kidding me?
Dude needs to get another year at very least. These are the players he brought in to perform exactly like they did in Wednesday’s second half. Win or lose today, he needs to get the fan support to see this through next season. He already has the media’s (me, too).
Remember, Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper are the only seniors on this squad.
Those UNM players, however, will have to show the same effort and grit — and a lot better execution — against USU. Don’t count on the Aggies’ flopping like the Cowboys.
Utah’s State’s first-year coach Craig Smith, the overwhelming MW coach of the year, isn’t going to get outsmarted by anyone in the league, and will likely make a national name for himself in the NCAA Tournament.
“Tone” Locs Up Record: Mathis, who has been in a late-season slump, has probably felt pressure down the stretch for the way the team’s season has gone — and because of his pursuit for the program’s all-time 3-point record campaign.
Mathis was just 1-of-13 from the floor and 1-of-6 behind the arc on Wednesday, but that one gave him the single-season record for 3s at 103 — breaking the mark set by Kevin Henry in 1998-99.
With that record out of the way and the big comeback under the Lobos’ belts, I see Mathis having a big game against Utah State.
That said, I’m certainly thankful I didn’t hear the one “Tone” made during Wednesday’s radio broadcast.
My skin would be crawling for weeks and I still need my ears for other high-pitched noise the next three days of this week’s high school state tournament games.
Mathis is 10-of-48 from the floor in the past five games and 8-for-34 from behind the arc.
Spread the News: UNM was a five-point favorite in Laramie on Saturday but lost. So what did that mean for Wednesday’s game on a neutral floor?
The line opened at 7 but moved all the way to 9.5 by game time. There was obviously plenty of action on New Mexico from the well-traveled Lobo fans – and they were rewarded.
James missed the second of two free throws with 13 seconds left to make UNM backers winners, regardless if they bet the number anywhere from 7-to-9.5.
Yep, like always – what does Vegas know?
Utah State, by the way, opened up as an 11.5-point favorite against UNM for today’s game.
No MWC — and No TV: The Mountain West dropped the word “Conference” from its official name a few years back.
That’s fine. But while it doesn’t like to use “conference,” I sure hope it starts to use real television again.
The MW.com streaming deal, the only way to watch the Lobo-Cowboy game outside of the T&M, left a lot to be desired.
I bounced around to a couple of places to see the game, but it was a chore. When the audio is seconds ahead of the video – not to mention the video breaking up and going AWOL at times – it’s not a good look for fans, recruits or anyone interested in hoops.
I get it – it’s the social media age.
But how is being glued to a cell phone or computer screen a healthy way to view a game?
Unless, of course, you like being alone in your basement.
Instead of worrying about reducing the league’s abbreviation/acronym (you pick) to two letters, how about getting back to the days of a TV contract with four letters – like ESPN?
Nothing against CBS, either.
But if the league love just two letters, how about it uses these to show all its games? TV.
Stay to Play: In the other MW’s other stay-in games, sixth-seeded Air Force (14-17) throttled 11th-seeded San Jose State 87-56, and eighth-seeded Boise State (13-19) ended ninth-seeded Colorado State’s season 66-57.
In today’s quarterfinals, the Falcons face top-seeded Nevada (28-3), the Broncos play third-seeded Fresno State (22-8) and fourth-seeded San Diego State (19-12) takes on host and fifth-seeded UNLV (17-13).
The top five seeds in the 11-team league had first-round byes.
The semifinals are Friday with the title game on Saturday.
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.