Photo: Utah State freshman Justin Bean celebrates in the final minute after drawing a charge that sealed the Aggies’ 91-83 MW tournament win that ended New Mexico’s season. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The seventh-seeded UNM Lobo men’s basketball team saw its season end on Thursday in Las Vegas, but not before an incredible effort against second-seeded Utah State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament. The Lobos (14-18) led much of the way but lost 91-83 to the NCAA Tournament-bound Aggies (26-6).
There were 16 ties and 19 lead changes in the game. The Aggies took the lead for good at 79-78 on a three-point play by freshman Abel Porter — whose 3-pointer in the final seconds beat UNM 68-66 in the Pit in January — with 3:13 left in the game. The Aggies closed the contest on a 15-5 run.
The Lobos led by as much as 52-44 five minutes into the second half. UNM coach Paul Weir picked up a technical foul at that point that allowed the Aggies a four-point possession, and he will likely get blamed for the loss because of it. So will the officials.
But the loss wasn’t because of the T — and it definitely wasn’t because of the officiating.
The Weir technical didn’t help, but it was by no means the difference in the game. The Lobos still worked the lead to 57-51 with 12:30 left, but they couldn’t finish it off.
The Lobos frenetic full-court pressure and fast-paced offense nearly took down the slick-and-disciplined Aggies. UNM turned it into a street-ball game. It was the style the Lobos started playing this season, and it should have been all season. I’ll have plenty more thoughts about that in a wrap-up column.
The officiating crew didn’t look prepared for that type of game, and it turned into a physical, frenzied affair. There were missed calls on both ends, and the Aggies ended up with a huge advantage from the foul line for several reasons, with the biggest being:
They earned it. They got the ball inside and drove to the lane repeatedly while the Lobos mostly shot from outside. The Lobos used an intense full-court press the entire game, forcing 24 turnovers — the most USU had surrendered all season.
You force that many turnovers in a full-court defense, and you’re going to pick up a lot of fouls. You get manhandled on the boards (46-28 Aggie advantage), you’re going to pick up fouls. You get beat on defense time and time again in a half-court set, guess what?
Yep, you’re going to pick up a boatload of fouls.
To blame the officiating isn’t just silly; it’s clueless.
New Mexico had just 10 turnovers.
The Aggies were 35-of-45 from the line (77.8 percent) while the Lobos were 17-of-21 (81 percent), despite the Thomas & Mack Center being overwhelmingly pro-Lobo, and living up to its MW tournament nickname of “Pit West.”
New Mexico got another huge outing from sophomore Vance Jackson (9-of-18) with 25 points, five assists and four rebounds, while Corey Manigault (4-of-11) scored 16 and Anthony Mathis (4-of-13) had 14. But the Lobos struggled to score inside against 6-foot-11 freshman star Neemias Queta, who had six blocked shots, 16 points, and six rebounds.
UNM’s 6-10 junior post Carlton Bragg scored nice back-to-back jump-hooks over Queta early in the second half, and he had a couple of questionable calls go against him, but he fouled out with just four points and one rebound.
Bragg struggled with Queta on the floor in all three of the teams’ meeting this season — all USU wins.
MW Player of the Year, USU guard Sam Merrill, got into foul trouble early and was held to 5-of-9 shooting. But he still scored a team-high 23 points and had a game-high nine assists, driving through and around the Lobos much of the night. He had just one turnover, despite all of his team’s miscues against the relentless Lobo defense.
UNM had 12 steals, the fifth most in school history.
The Aggies had a whopping 15 turnovers in the first half but still were tied with New Mexico at 39-39 at the break.
Another point about the fouls? Both teams had 12 at the half — with UNM picking up the final two — and Merrill went to the locker room with three. But Utah State’s Craig Smith, the MW Coach of the Year, settled his team down and made enough adjustments at the break to change that.
A sign of things to come didn’t take long. Jackson picked up two fouls in the first 60 seconds of the second half.
Utah State was 25-of-47 from the floor (53.2 percent) and 6-of-13 from 3-point range (46.2 percent). UNM was 28-of-72 from the field (38.9 percent) and 10-of-29 behind the arc (34.5 percent).
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.