LAS VEGAS — It was a game of runs. But the University of New Mexico men's basketball team enjoyed more scoring spurts and inflicted more damage during them as the Lobos surged past Utah State by a score of 83-68 Friday night to advance to the Mountain West Championship game.
New Mexico turned the ball over on its opening possession, but Utah State returned the favor and UNM senior Sam Logwood threw down a dunk for the first score of the game.
Utah State got a couple of early 3-pointers from sophomore guard Sam Merrill, a sharpshooter from the outside. His second make gave the Aggies an 8-6 lead just under three minutes into the game.
Dane Kuiper of UNM answered with a long-range shot of his own, spurring a 6-0 scoring spurt as the Lobos regained control to move out in front by a score of 12-8.
But then the Aggies reeled off 12 straight points, capped by a Quinn Taylor layup just past the midway point of the first half. That run seemingly gave the Aggies control of the game — giving them a 20-12 lead with 9:45 remaining after Taylor's layup.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, that was the last basket they were able to score for over eight minutes — and the Lobos seized the opportunity to go on a couple of runs of their own.
Utah State head coach Tim Duryea said the scoring drought was probably as bad of a stretch as the team has played all year and it ultimately proved to be too much to overcome.
Junior guard Troy Simons buried a 3-pointer and senior Joe Furstinger made a bucket to record five straight points. Merrill made a pair of free throws to make it 22-17 — but then the hoop was closed for business for Utah State.
New Mexico rattled off a monster 14-0 run as the Lobos played harassing defense, the Aggies over seven times. The offense found its rhythm, attacking the rim and drawing contact to get to the free throw line.
Freshman Makuach Maluach rose up to hammer home a vicious dunk off a nice assist from Jackson to punctuate the run, making the score 36-22 with 2:20 remaining in the half.
Utah State finally got a shot to fall after Koby McEwen got a jumper to go down at the 1:38 mark to end the tumultuous shooting stretch from the floor, but the damage was done and the Aggies wound up entering the locker room trailing 37-25.
Logwood and Merrill both had 10 points at the break to lead the scoring. But both teams had struggles shooting from the outside which each school hitting just three 3-pointers over the first 20 minutes. Utah State shot just 34.6 from the floor in the opening frame, while the Lobos used their big run to boost its average to 48.2 percent.
But the Lobos weren't content to sit on the double-digit advantage. New Mexico kept the foot on the gas pedal in the second half, erupting for an 8-0 run that covered just 1:46 to break the game wide open, leading 45-25.
Later in the half, Troy Simons delivered a 3-ball to make it a 21-point lead and Maluach flew down the lane thundering home another ferocious dunk on the ensuing possession to push the score to 53-30 at the 15:21 mark.
The 23-point margin was the largest lead of the game for New Mexico and plenty of cushion to work with the rest of the way. Despite Wyoming making some sustained runs to inch closer, the Aggies were only to pull within single digits once in the second half.
A Merrill 3-pointer capped a 9-0 spurt for the Aggies to close the gap to 53-39, but the Lobos answered with a Frustinger bucket and Simons steal that led to a pair of free throws to go up by 18 points again.
The score continued to see-saw over the next several minutes with New Mexico all too happy to oblige — and the lead remained the same as the clock continued to wind down under five minutes.
Utah State mounted one last charge, scoring seven straight points to cut the deficit to 75-64 and still had some life after a McEwen layup made it a nine-point game with with 1:51 left on the clock.
The Aggies needed to decide whether to put the Lobos at the foul line to extend the game or try to make a defensive stop, but waited far to long to execute their strategy.
They waited until there was 10 or fewer seconds on the shot clock to commit a foul, electing to put Antino Jackson at the free throw line on consecutive possessions. He made three of his four attempts to thwart any potential comeback and added a late 3-pointer to score the final points of the game.
And when the ball found the way into Jackson's hands in the final seconds, he lifted his arms over his hand and let the ball fly into the air as time expired, lifting New Mexico into the Mountain West Champion game with an 83-68 win over Utah State.
Both teams ended up with four players in double figures. Merrill and Simons were tied with a game-high 17 points, while Lobo seniors Logwood and Furstinger tallied 16 apiece.
New Mexico won the rebounding battle by a slim margin, 30-28, and were solid at the free throw line, where the team went 20-of-25. Turnovers play a critical role too — though the amount of turnovers were roughly the same by each team, UNM held a 23-13 edge in points scored off of them.
The Lobos will meet San Diego State, which had upset No. 1-seeded Nevada earlier on Friday, in the Mountain West title game. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. with the winning earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
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.