It is not accustomed to playing games on Sunday, but the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team could use a win any way it could get it — and the team came up big in crunch time to do just that.
New Mexico (15-14, 10-6 MW) won its third straight game to elevate its overall record to above .500 for the first time since the opening games of the season, gutting out a 91-90 victory over UNLV on Sunday afternoon.
Things went back and forth throughout the game, and things got chippy at times as the referee’s whistle began to blow with more frequency as both teams seemed to give everything they had to hold on to their place in the conference standings.
The win moved New Mexico into a tie with conference rival Fresno State for third place in the Mountain West standings. And those two schools could have a lot on the line when the Lobos host the Bulldogs in the regular season finale Saturday.
Head coach Paul Weir used the word “unusual” to describe the game but said UNLV played really well. The Lobos missed out on some opportunities, but just when it may have seemed like things were not going the Lobos’ way, the tide turned and a freshman stepped up to play the role of hero.
Joe Furstinger celebrities with superfan Mark “Snake” Tichenor after a close win over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 90-91, at Dreamstyle Stadium on Feb. 25, 2018.
“We missed a lot of stuff — a lot of layups around the rim, a lot of loose balls just ended up in their hands,” Weir said. “Just seemed like we couldn’t catch a break in that second half, but fortunately we were able to close the game obviously come out with a big win.”
UNLV opened the scoring in the contest with a quick steal and layup by Tervell Beck, but the Lobos responded with an 11-1 run.
Senior forward Joe Furstinger capped the run by towering over a Jordan Johnson shot attempt, emphatically rejecting the attempt for his 100th career block — moving him into eighth place on the team’s all-time list.
The swat led to a transition 3-point basket off the hands of Dane Kuiper to put UNM up 11-3, and it looked like the Lobos were primed to blow things open early.
But the Runnin’ Rebels stayed true to their namesake and went on a 9-0 run to regain their composure and the lead at the 13:25 mark.
New Mexico made its first two 3-pointers of the game, but then went cold from the outside. Somehow the team was still able to score inside amongst UNLV’s tree-like frontcourt and drew two early fouls on 7-foot Brandon McCoy, sending him to the bench with 11:33 remaining.
In his absence, the Lobos were able to build a seven-point lead. But they found themselves looking up at the scoreboard and trailing 37-32 with about three and a half minutes left before halftime.
UNM went to work, attacking the rim and drawing contact to get to the free throw line, where the team made 17 of its 19 first half attempts — seven more makes and attempts than UNLV was able to garner.
But that free throw disparity was made up for, and then some, in the second half.
The Rebels seemed to live at the charity stripe over the final 20 minutes, attempting 28 foul shots, compared to just 10 by New Mexico.
The Lobos were able to increase their cushion to 11 points in a hurry when the teams returned to the floor for the second half, knocking down three quick 3-pointers to snag a 57-46 advantage.
The teams continued to trade baskets before UNLV guard Johnson started to heat up. The Rebels went on an 8-0 scoring spurt — all of which came from Johnson — as he sliced into the Lobo lead to pull UNLV within 63-60 just past the midway point of the second half.
Junior guard Anthony Mathis missed his first two 3-pointers of the game but rebounded to knock down three from long range after halftime. He actually converted a 4-point play after he was fouled while making a corner 3 to quell the Rebel run.
The Lobos were still able to maintain a comfortable margin as the clock ticked inside the five minute mark after junior guard Troy Simons stuck another 3-pointer to lift his team to an 81-76 lead.
But UNLV made another run and got a big call on a block/charge. McCoy was initially whistled for a charge and his fourth personal, waving off a made basket that would have tied the game. That gave the ball back to the Lobos with 3:48 to play with a two-point lead.
However, the referees elected to go to the replay monitor — presumably to check if the Lobo defender, Furstinger, was outside the restricted circle under the hoop.
They determined he was not and reversed the call, which inside sent Furstinger to the bench — ending his day after picking up foul number five. The McCoy basket was put back on the board, and his subsequent free throw gave UNLV an 82-81 lead.
Weir said he contemplated going big at that point but realized the need to score points and decided instead to go with freshman Makuach Maluach — good call.
Maluach responded with a monster dunk to regain the lead for the Lobos, as he began to assume his role as closer.
Johnson buried a 3-pointer at the other end to put UNLV back on top 85-83, but Maluach struck again a few minutes later with a shot to tie the score at 88-88 with 44 seconds remaining.
UNLV’s Javon Mooring drew a foul call while in the process of shooting a 3-pointer on the next possession but made just two of his three free throw attempts, leaving the door open for New Mexico.
And when the ball wound up in the hands of Maluach again, the freshman never hesitated — rising and swishing a shot from downtown that would prove to be the game-winning bucket.
But the Lobos still had to play defense to protect its slim 91-90 advantage as the Rebels took a timeout with 10.5 seconds to play. Johnson had torched the Lobos for 25 points and the goal appeared to be for UNM to force the guard to give up the rock and make someone else make a play.
Johnson drove and kicked to set up his teammate for a wide open 3-point attempt, but the shot was off the mark. There was a lot of contact on a put back attempt, but the referees swallowed the whistle in that instance as the buzzer sounded with the Lobos still clinging to that one-point lead.
Mathis said the team showed a lot of poise down the stretch when it counted, and he credited Maluach for stepping up in a big way. The freshman scored eight of the team’s final 10 points to help UNM escape with the 91-90 win.
Johnson led all scorers with his 25-point effort, but it wasn’t quite enough for UNLV. The Rebels will probably look back at the 12 missed free throw attempts and wonder what could have been if they had done better at the charity stripe.
Maluach wound up with 13 points, though it was Mathis who led the Lobos with 18 points, as five Lobos reached double figures in scoring.
The Lobos will travel to Colorado State and try to pick up another crucial conference win against the Rams Wednesday at 7 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.