Lobo men's basketball suffered another setback losing at home Tuesday night and may have left fans with more questions than answers about the identity of the team.
New Mexico (2-2, 0-0 MW) dropped its second contest in a row to fall to .500 on the season, while the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles used the 104-96 victory over the Lobos to improve its record to 4-1.
UNM appeared to be eager to drop the hammer on its opponent early and prove that Friday night's 75-56 loss in Las Cruses against the Aggies was an aberration. The Lobos jumped out to an early 8-0 lead by the time the first media break came around and the team looked to be on track to do just that.
Things continued to go the Lobos' way as the team enjoyed their largest lead of the game, 14 points, after Chris McNeal nailed a 3-point basket to make the score 20-6.
But Tennessee Tech came to play.
The Golden Eagles didn't fold under the pressure of trying to break the full-court press. Instead, TTU used timely shooting and strong rebounding to hang around.
UNM head coach Paul Weir said Tennessee Tech deserved a lot of credit for hitting shots and its overall play.
TTU senior guard Aleksa Jugovic started heating up, knocking down three 3-pointers in under a minute to slice the lead in half and make the score 26-1 — then added a free throw to pull his team even closer.
He continued to have a hot hand and eventually tied the game at 35-35 and then gave his team the lead at 40-37 when he stuck his sixth 3-pointer of the half.
McNeal answered the challenge by sinking three straight 3-pointers to put New Mexico back on top 46-42. And the Lobos were able to take a 55-51 lead into the locker room at half after Dan Kuiper squared up and buried a long-distance shot just before halftime.
At halftime, Jugovic led all scorers with 24 points on a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor, while McNeal paced the Lobos with 18 points. Even though UNM enjoyed a five-point cushion at halftime, the team was getting outworked on the boards and giving up way too many easy baskets.
New Mexico put the clamps on Jugovic in the second half for the most part but still had difficulty protecting the 3-point line as it surrendered a shot from beyond the arc on TTU's first possession to make the score 58-54.
With the exception of a brief six-point bulge for UNM later in the period, neither team led by more than four points until the final minute of the game.
Weir said the team made adjustments to how Tennessee Tech handled the press in the first half, but some sloppy Lobo play resulted in turnovers and easy buckets for the Golden Eagles in the second half and UNM found itself looking up on the scoreboard.
New Mexico led for much of the second half, but relinquished the advantage after Curtis Phillips 3-pointer gave Tennessee Tech a one-point lead, 76-75 at the 8:08 mark.
The Golden Eagles shot lights out in the second half, going off to shoot 63 percent from the floor, while the Lobos struggled to find their shot at just 38.2 percent shooting. TTU had nine steals in the second half to help build some steam in transition.
On two occasions, Anthony Mathis connected on 3-point baskets that gave the Lobos the lead, only to see it squandered with an easy run to the hoop by Tennessee Tech.
Despite all the shortcomings, Makuach Maluach put UNM on top 81-80 with 2:52 left to play after he hit a pair of free throws. But it was the last time the Lobos held a lead in the game.
Kugovic re-emerged to hit a layup and stick a dagger 3-point basket into the heart of the Lobos and increase the Golden Eagle advantage to 97-93. Kuiper hit a late 3-pointer with 12.9 left, but UNM had dug itself too deep of a hole to climb out of.
TTU knocked down its free throws to grind out a 104-96 win over the Lobos at Dreamstyle Arena.
Weir said the second-half turnovers were problematic and the coaches and players alike will have to be better moving forward. The team has to learn how to respond to adversity, and Tuesday was not a good example of how to handle things.
New Mexico will travel to Florida to improve on that as it competes in the Emerald Coast Classic, beginning play against TCU on Friday, Nov. 24 at 5 p.m.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.