A late charge wasn’t quite enough for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team as it came up short on the road Wednesday night against Utah State.
The Lobos fell back under .500 for the season and snapped their three-game winning streak. The 89-80 loss dropped UNM to 11-12 overall and 6-4 in Mountain West play. While Utah State improved to 6-5 in conference and are now 13-11 on the season.
New Mexico was without the services of four players who collectively had accounted for nearly 39 percent of the team’s offensive output. Despite missing some major contributors, UNM was able to battle back from double-digit deficits on multiple occasions to makes things interesting.
The teams traded buckets to start the game, but Utah State quickly asserted itself and built a double-digit advantage within the first five and a half minutes of the contest—culminating with a dunk from Diogo Brito that gave the Aggies an 18-8 lead.
USU guard Koby McEwen was able to get off early and often, hitting seemingly everything he put up—but he was just getting warmed up.
Utah State still held a nine-point edge with 8:53 left in the first half, but New Mexico caught fire and capitalized on Aggie miscues to surge ahead. UNM went on a 13-2 run and seized its first lead after junior guard Anthony Mathis stuck a jumper to put the Lobos on top 32-30 with 4:31 remaining.
After a Utah State free throw, UNM freshman Makuach Maluach buried a 3-pointer to stretch the New Mexico lead to 35-31 with 3:04 to play, but the Lobos blew the advantage by failing to close out strong—or even score—the rest of the opening frame.
Utah State scored the final eight points of the first half to reclaim the lead, which allowed the Aggies to play from ahead the rest of the way.
USU wasted little time amassing a double-digit lead again in the second half, and UNM seemed to struggle for an answer.
But junior guard Chris McNeal helped keep the Lobos afloat for an important stretch in the second half—scoring 10 straight points for his team to keep New Mexico in the game.
Despite his best effort though, the Aggies made another stretch run to increase the lead to 15 points, which was enjoyed for the first time at the 12:19 mark when the score was 64-49.
McEwen spoiled some good efforts, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to thwart the Lobos attempt to inch closer. Eventually UNM was able to gain ground though—catapulting back into things after Troy Simons nailed a deep ball and Mathis completed a pair of 3-point plays to get New Mexico within 70-64.
The Aggies appeared to have a firm hold on things after they responded with a 9-0 run to go back on top 79-64 with 5:28 left in the game after a McEwen layup, but was unable to score from the field again for nearly five minutes.
New Mexico made another run thanks to some solid defense and forcing turnovers, but USU was still able to cling to a slim lead thanks to its ability to sink some free throws.
But it was actually a missed free throw that tilted things further in Utah State’s favor. UNM guard Simons had made it a single-possession game on a dunk to make the score 83-80 with just over a minute to play, but the Lobos gave up a foul on a successful layup at the other end on the next play.
The Aggies missed the free throw, but were able to secure the miss and New Mexico was forced to foul.
McEwen stepped up and knocked down both free throws with under 30 seconds remaining and the Aggies were able to salt the game away from there. Utah State closed things out at the foul line to protect its home floor and seal the 89-80 victory.
Four Aggies finished the night in double figures with McEwen leading all scorers with 31 points on a very efficient 10-of-15 shooting night—including drilling six 3-pointers. His backcourt partner, Sam Merrill, collected 18 points while Quinn Taylor and Dwayne Brown Jr. chipped in 15 points apiece.
Utah State shot 56.4 percent from the field as a team and were lights out from beyond the arc, going 13-of-24 (54.2 percent) from long distance. The Lobos made the same amount on four more attempts and weren’t as sharp as their counterparts on the court, shooting 48.3 percent overall.
Mathis set the tone for the Lobos with 25 points. McNeal and Maluach joined him with double-digit scoring nights, posting 21 and 15, respectively. But it wasn’t quite enough to get the job done.
The Lobos will try to salvage a split on its two-game road trip when the team heads to California on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 4 p.m. to take on San Jose State.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.