Things got out of hand quickly as the University of New Mexico men's basketball team thoroughly dominated Colorado State in the first half — and then coasted to victory to sweep the regular season series against the Rams.
New Mexico (16-14, 11-6 MW) was unrelenting in its quest to lock up a first-round bye in the upcoming 2018 MW Men's Basketball Championship, jumping all over Colorado State in the early going.
The Lobos had an answer in the second half for seemingly every run the Rams tried to make and picked up a 108-87 victory for a season-high fourth straight win.
In the first meeting between the schools, Colorado State turned the ball over 24 times on the way to an 80-65 loss on Jan. 27 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
And Wednesday night — wasn't much better.
The Rams exhibited the same issues they had last month protecting the ball, getting off to a shaky start and turning it over four times in the first four minutes and change. The mistakes, coupled with white-hot shooting by UNM to start the game, were a recipe for disaster for CSU.
In the first minute of the game, Lobo junior guard Chris McNeal opened up the scoring with a 3-pointer and then collected a steal that set up teammate Troy Simons to do the same.
Senior forward Joe Furstinger and fellow big man Vladimir Pinchuk went to work inside, and the Lobos raced out to a 16-5 advantage, prompting a CSU timeout with 15:48 remaining in the first half.
The timeout didn't seem to settle Colorado State down as the Rams committed another Ram turnover, which led to another Lobo 3-pointer, and the rout was on.
New Mexico increased its lead to 20 by the midway point of the first half — and continued to pour it on as it ballooned to a 30-point bulge later in the period. CSU's 11th turnover of the half led to a bucket by Simons, giving the Lobos a 49-19 edge with just over five minutes remaining before the break.
The Lobos shot an incredible 71.4 percent in the first half, while the Rams went just 37.9. CSU actually had more turnovers than made field goals and trailed 58-32 at the break.
Furstinger was the leading scorer at the half with 15 points, leading a trio of Lobos with double figures. Junior guards McNeal and Anthony Mathis tallied 10 points each at the half.
Colorado State played much better in the second half, shooting over 60 percent and forcing 11 second-half turnovers in an attempt to mount a comeback. But overcoming a 26-point halftime deficit would have been a difficult ask of any team, and ultimately it was too much for the Rams to overcome.
Lobo senior transfer Antino Jackson was scoreless in the first half, but went off for 13 second-half point, going 3-of-4 from downtown. His contribution was timely as he quelled two Ram runs by knocking down a pair of big 3-pointers, the latter giving UNM a 79-59 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining.
Jackson dished out nine assists and collected four steals in the game — though he was also responsible for five turnovers.
New Mexico forced 19 turnovers during the game, but committed an uncharacteristically high number (18) itself for the game. And even though the Lobos had a great offensive night and ended up with a win, those mistakes are something UNM head coach Paul Weir wasn't happy about.
"Our offense is in a really good rhythm right now. I think we've got a great balance of transition, some inside scorers, some outside scorers and getting to the free throw line," Weir said in a release. "Turnovers are still an issue...I didn't think we were as sharp as I would have liked throughout the entire 40 minutes.
Some of those turnovers allowed Colorado State to make a few run and pick up some momentum.
CSU's Prentiss Nixon caught fire, scoring 18 second-half points and making three consecutive free throws to pull the Rams within 98-83 with about four and a half minutes to play.
But it wasn't enough as the Rams lost a couple of starting players due to foul trouble and the Lobos slammed the door by responding with some free throws and a couple of layups to withstand the late charge.
Prentiss led all scorers with 27 points, followed by teammate Raquan Mitchell's 21-point effort. But New Mexico saw seven players turn in double-digit scoring performances, led by Furstinger, who wound up with 22 on the night.
New Mexico was able to garner a rare win in the rebounding category, outworking Colorado State on the boards by a 37-27 margin. The Lobos also got a huge boost from their bench, which held a 54-24 advantage in points scored in that category.
UNM held a sizable advantage in points scored off turnovers, 34-22, though there was a much bigger disparity before things shifted in the second half.
The Lobos will host Fresno State at Dreamstyle Arena on March 3 at 7 p.m. to cap the regular season. Mountain West Tournament seeding will be on the line as the teams are tied for third place in the conference standings.
Regardless of the result, both team are assured a bye in the first round of the upcoming tournament after locking up one of the top five seeds — all of which are awarded that benefit.
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.