New Mexico men’s hoops amassed an early 21-point lead against the University of Texas at El Paso, but gave it all back and then some as the teams played an instant classic that came down to the wire in a thrilling finish.
The crowd of 11,838 rose to its feet after Lobo junior guard Xavier Adams emphatically waved his arm late in the game, imploring the home crowd to get behind his team.
The Lobos and Miners traded baskets in the final minutes, before UTEP appeared to bury a dagger into the hearts of Lobo fans in the form of a 3-pointer to take a 77-74 lead with 28.4 seconds left.
As it turned out, 28.4 second was just enough time for UNM to get to work.
Lobos head coach Craig Neal said the game was great for both fanbases. He said he was happy about renewing the rivalry, and looks forward to the next time they play.
New Mexico (6-3) almost took the roof off WisePies Arena to start the game, hitting six of its first seven shots to seize early control over UTEP (2-5). In what seemed like a blink of the eye, the Lobos built a 27-6 lead with 12:27 left in the first half.
UTEP senior guard Dominic Artis collected two early fouls within the first five minutes of the game — the Lobos probably wish they had gone at him to draw a third to get him on the bench.
Instead, he missed just two minutes of game action and helped spearhead a furious comeback. He torched the Lobos in the first half for 13 points, connecting on three 3-pointers to go along with three steals.
Teammate Omega Harris scored 14 first-half points as UTEP drew within four points, but the Lobos closed things out on a 5-1 run to secure a 47-39 lead at the break.
New Mexico junior guard Elijah Brown led all scorers with 16 points at intermission, and had a team-high four rebounds and two steals.
Deon Barrett, a wide-eyed freshman guard for the Miners, played just two minutes in the first frame and didn’t have a stat line to show for it. But he would leave his imprint on the game before the night was over.
Head coach Craig Neal said he took responsibility for the lead evaporating in the first half. He said the plan was to develop the bench, but when he made the substitutions it came back to bite him.
The Lobos came out aggressive again in the second half and ran out to another double-digit lead, enjoying their largest second-half advantage after center Obij Aget slammed down a thundering dunk to put his team up 57-44 with 16:02 remaining.
But UTEP started to chip away at the lead again, as Barrett launched an aerial assault from beyond the arc to bring the Miners all the way back. He gave his team its first lead at 62-61 with under 10 minutes to play.
Brown countered to retake the lead for UNM, but Barrett continued his hot shooting by making six consecutive 3-point attempts before one of his shots finally missed the basket.
Barrett gave the Miners its largest lead of the night by sinking a pair of free throws to make the score 72-68. Adams scored four consecutive points from the foul line for UNM to bring the teams even again.
The Lobos had a chance to take the lead, but Jordan Hunter missed a three-point shot and the long rebound led to an easy layup for Barrett at the other end with less than 90 seconds to go.
Sam Logwood countered with a pull-up jumper along the baseline to even things up at 74-74 again before Barrett struck again to score from deep, giving him 25 second-half points.
The Lobos did an awful job guarding the 3-point line, continuing to lose sight of Miner shooters and allowing wide open attempts. Neal said UTEP went 15-for-29 from 3-point land due in large part to lapses on defense and a lack of urgency in closing out shooters.
Neal said the team planned to try for a three of its own to tie the game, but Hunter saw a chance to penetrate and got to the rim to score on a layup to cut the deficit to one.
New Mexico fouled Artis with 18 seconds remaining, and the senior missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity. The Lobos secured the rebound and Brown hung and hit what proved to be the game-winning shot with five seconds left.
“I’ll be real honest, plays like that — that has nothing to do with coaching,” Neal said. “That’s just players making plays.”
Brown ended with a season-high 25 points and hit what he said was his first “game-winner.” He said he wanted that shot after giving up the last three that put UTEP ahead and got a good look at it.
Artis got off a contested look before the buzzer, but it was off the mark and the Lobos escaped with a 78-77 victory to protect its perfect 5-0 record at home.
UNM lost its two previous games in which the team was in a one-possession game down the stretch, but this time found a way to come out on top.
Despite the win, the Lobos still have a lot to fix moving forward. In addition to defending the ball and perimeter shooting, the team also missed 11 free throws.
Senior forward Tim Williams will start practicing tomorrow after being held out of the last two games due to being in the concussion protocol. Neal said Williams will likely be a game-time decision.
New Mexico will travel to Las Cruces for another New Mexico State rivalry game, set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers football and men’s and women’s tennis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @robert_maler.