Slated as a preseason selection to finish ninth in the Mountain West, the University of New Mexico men's basketball team finished the season far from it — knocking off the Fresno State Bulldogs in overtime on Saturday night to overtake third place in the conference standings.
New Mexico ensured itself of a winning record this season, finishing the regular season 17-14 overall and going 12-6 in Mountain West play. The Lobos also extended their season-high winning streak to five with the 95-86 win over the Bulldogs, but three will be the important number moving forward.
UNM will shift its attention to next week's 2018 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship in Las Vegas Nevada, where it will compete as a No. 3 seed and hope to win three games in three days to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The win over the Bulldogs may have made the road to achieving that goal a little bit easier, as the win afforded the Lobos a chance to avoid No. 1 Nevada until a potential meeting in the championship game.
In Saturday's game, New Mexico got on the board first against Fresno State after senior forward Joe Furstinger made a layup at the 18:20 mark to open the scoring.
Things got off to a slow start as the referee's whistle blew early and often — and seemed to disrupt the pace of play as the team's tried to figure out how the game was going to be called.
The score remained close for the majority of the first half. Junior guard Troy Simons rose up and connected on a 3-point shot to give the Lobos a 19-15 lead, a four-point bulge that was matched on the next possession after fellow junior guard Anthony Mathis nailed another one from deep with 9:40 remaining in the half to make it 22-18.
Fresno State continued to stick around though, thanks in large part to junior guard Deshon Taylor, who notched 14 first-half points to lead all scorers.
With seven minutes remaining in the first half and the score tied 24-24, New Mexico was able to create some separation by reeling off a 15-3 run — seizing a 39-27 advantage with 2:42 left in the half.
But Fresno State responded to close out the half on a 7-0 run, slicing into the Lobo lead and pulling within 39-34 heading into the locker room.
The Bulldogs opened the scoring in the second half with a basket to make it a single-possession game, but then the Lobos exploded for a 13-2 run to seemingly regain control in the matchup — enjoying a 14-point margin, up 52-38, at the 14:38 mark.
To make matters worse for Fresno State, Deshon Taylor had been whistled for his fourth personal foul and was forced to the bench.
But the Bulldogs had another Taylor in its repertoire. Senior guard Jahmel Taylor had been quiet — scoring just five points through the first 34 minutes of the game — but went off for 16 over the final six minutes of regulation to cap an impressive comeback.
The Lobos appeared to be in good shape after Furstinger hit a layup to give UNM a 77-68 lead with just under three minutes remaining in the game, but Jahmel Taylor's — coupled with some costly turnovers by New Mexico — left the door open.
Jahmel Taylor made back-to-back 3-pointers, but a pair of Lobo free throws and a Mathis layup pushed the UNM lead back to seven. Taylor lost the handle on the ensuing possession, giving the ball back to the Lobos. New Mexico, up seven points with the ball and less than 90 seconds to play seemed to be a lock to close things out — but then the unthinkable happened.
The Lobos committed three consecutive turnovers, each of which lead to immediate Bulldog baskets. The final one, a backcourt violation following a UNM timeout set up Jahmel Taylor for a game-tying 3-pointer to square things up at 81-81.
New Mexico had two looks at the end of regulation, but couldn't get either of them to fall and the game headed into overtime.
Things were tightly contested in the extra period, but the Lobos exhibited solid defensively play. In fact, New Mexico didn't allow a single field goal in the bonus session — limiting the Bulldogs to five points, all of which came at the free throw line.
With 1:16 remaining in overtime and UNM clinging to a one-point lead, senior transfer Antino Jackson squared up and drilled a big 3-pointer to put the Lobos on top 88-84.
It was the 10th make from downtown as a team for New Mexico, and went a long way to clinching the win. Junior guard Chris McNeal pushed the margin back to seven, sinking two free throws to make it .
And this time around, the lead was safe as UNM held on for a 95-86 win over Fresno State to send off its players with a win on Senior Night.
Mathis and the two Taylor's from Fresno State all ended up tied with a game-high 23 points. While seniors Sam Logwood, Furstinger and Jackson each wound up in double figures and playing a major role in the win as well.
New Mexico will face the winner of the game between No. 6 Wyoming and No. 11 San Jose State, with the Lobos' first game scheduled to tip-off at 9:30 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.