Not many people gave New Mexico a chance to win against the undefeated Nevada Wolfpack heading into Saturday's matchup at Dreamstyle Arena aka The Pit.
However, the Lobos engineered an 85-58 dominating performance over the No. 6 team in the country, handing the Wolfpack their first loss of the season and putting the Mountain West Conference and the nation on notice.
New Mexico (8-6, 2-0 MW) had failed to live up to expectations and potential over the course of the first 11 games, but finally showed what the talented groups of players are capable of achieving. UNM head coach Paul Weir credited the players for exhibiting high energy, resulting in winning a lot of 50-50 plays.
"I don't know where it came from. I've talked about fighting and competing all year long," Weir said when asked about the team's hustle. "Tonight was the night I felt we were able to get rebounds that used to maybe go out of bounds...or get loose balls or whatever those things may be."
The Lobos surrendered the first bucket of the game after Tre'Shawn Johnson opened the scoring with a layup, but a Corey Manigualt gave UNM a 4-3 lead a short time later and the team never looked back.
Fans at the University of New Mexico men's basketball game cheer against the University of Nevada in Dreamstyle Arena on Saturday, Jan. 5.
Manigault and company had active hands that disrupted passing lanes and helped create three Nevada turnovers through the first three minutes and change.
UNM junior Carlton Bragg got The Pit crowd on its feet after he shook his man, drove baseline and threw down a violent dunk. Anthony Mathis found Vance Jackson on the next possession, who drilled a 3-pointer to give the Lobos an 11-5 lead just six minutes into the action.
Nevada didn't do itself any favors as the team struggled to score the basketball and quickly fell behind by double digits. Caleb Martin made it a single-digit contest again after he connected on a 3-pointer — the Wolfpack's first made basket that wasn't a layup or a dunk — with 5:56 remaining in the first half.
The Wolfpack was unable to sustain any kind of run as New Mexico seemed to answer back with a big shot anytime it was needed. Back-to-back shots by Lobo senior guard Dane Kuiper and a 3-ball from Mathis pushed the lead 33-18 and the team eventually took a 38-26 lead into the locker room at half.
Nevada shot just under 38 percent in the first half and was awful from the foul line, making just 1-of-6 free throw attempts. And things didn't improve after the break.
The Wolfpack was able to draw within nine points on a couple of occasions after opening the second half with a couple of blocks and getting to the free throw line again. Jordan Caroline cut the deficit to 40-31 after a pair of makes at the 17:04 mark.
But the charity stripe continued to be an issue for most of the night. Nevada was 10-of-21 at one point and continued to struggle from the field as well. The team shot an anemic 28.6 percent from the floor — including just 1-of-12 from 3-point range.
The Lobos continued to apply pressure and thwart any comeback effort, racking up seven second-half 3-pointers. The final one being a deep try from Mathis to extend the margin to 29 points, making it 83-54 with 2:29 to play.
UNM won virtually every statistical category and shot 45.6 percent overall for the game. The team also went an efficient 12-of-16 from the free throw line.
Weir said he told his team in the days leading up to the game that the opponent and other ancillary factors don't matter. He said the importance is on what the Lobos do and pointed to protecting the ball and contesting the 3-point line as areas of focus.
The Lobos held a clear advantage in both facets, outscoring the Wolfpack 20-5 in points off turnovers and limited them to just 4-of-22 overall from long range, connecting on 11-of-29 from beyond the arc and also won the rebounding battle 47-37.
Caroline was the lone bright spot on offense for Nevada, scoring 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting. But nobody else on the team made more than two shots.
New Mexico had plenty of players chip in on the way to the 85-58 win. Mathis led all scoring with 27 points, while Jackson posted 18 and finished a few assists shy of a triple-double. Sophomore Makuach Maluach also finished with double figures, garnering 14 points on the night.
Despite scoring 30 points in the paint, one area of weakness for the Lobos might be an inability to feed the ball inside. But the ceiling of the team appears to be very high and could have even more potential if it can become more polished.
Weir — currently in his second season at the Lobo helm — said the win had to be the most significant one while at UNM given the circumstances and the opponents' ranking. But the head coach deferred on accepting praise, saying he was just happy for his players.
"I'm gonna maybe a lot of credit for what happened last year; I might even get credit for tonight," Weir said. "This is about players and these guys played their butts off."
New Mexico will see if it can extend its 3-game winning streak when the Lobos host UNLV on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.