The UNM men's basketball team now has some much-needed momentum heading into tonight's contest against the University of Nevada at Las Vegas at 7 p.m. in The Pit.
Now the Lobos must develop a taste for success and prepare for the Rebels, who were recently ruled ineligible for post-season competition, including the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
"They're going to be hungry and will be playing this final stretch of conference play like its their playoffs," UNM head coach Fran Fraschilla said. "I know Max Good, and I know his team will be looking to make a lot of teams miserable."
Two weeks ago, the Lobos were reeling from a four-game losing skid and appeared not to need UNLV's help to feel miserable, but wins over Georgia State University and San Diego State University has put the team back on track.
UNM has improved its record to 4-5 in Mountain West Conference play and 15-8 overall.
The first half of Saturday's 72-54 win over San Diego State did not look promising. The Lobos led the Aztecs 31-27, but were out-rebounded by the conference bottom-feeders, who are now 1-9 in the Mountain West and 11-12 overall.
UNM seemed to be making the right plays in forcing 13 Aztec turnovers, but 50 percent shooting from the free-throw line cut into what should have been a commanding Lobo lead. Without the hot hand of guard Ruben Douglas, who racked up 14 points in the first half, the Lobos would have been in trouble - particularly with shooting guard Eric Chatfield on the bench with two fouls.
In the second half, UNM took control of the game when forward Wayland White opened the half with a dunk, Chatfield hit a layup and a 3-pointer and Douglas capped off the run with back-to-back 3-pointers, sending the quiet Pit crowd into a frenzy.
After a San Diego State timeout, Zeke Johnson stole the ball and was fouled on a dunk attempt and hit one of two free throws. San Diego State's Al Faux turned the ball over in the paint and Douglas scored on a jump shot during UNM's next possession, forcing another San Diego State timeout.
With UNM's lead pushed to 47-31, the Lobos had some breathing room and Fraschilla was able to do something he swore earlier this season he would never do - play freshman center Patrick Dennehy and freshman forward Alvin Broussard at the same time. Fraschilla put in Dennehy, Broussard, Johnson, Douglas and point guard Marlon Parmer - a possible preview of next year's team, with White and center Brian Smith exhausting their eligibility this year.
"They made a few mistakes, but I felt comfortable with them running the offense and getting in some good minutes together," Fraschilla said. "Patrick played really well, giving us two points and nine rebounds. That was nice to see."
Fraschilla said another reason he made sure Dennehy and Broussard got plenty of playing time was because they will be needed against UNLV tonight.
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The lull in the Lobos' schedule ended Saturday. Their final five games come against top conference teams, including a UNLV team that boasts All-American center Kaspars Kambala and an equally quick, athletic group of guards led by Trevor Diggs.
UNLV, 6-4 in Mountain West play and 15-10 overall, is coming off an 86-78 road win at Air Force Saturday. The Rebels have now won three of their last four games. Before the Air Force win, UNLV defeated Brigham Young University 68-56 after coming back from a 16-point deficit, and lost to the University of Utah 85-77.
Two weeks ago, UNLV won an 80-78 thriller on the road against the University of Wyoming on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by forward Dalron Johnson.
Smith, UNM's main inside man, who is not at full strength after a serious knee injury two seasons ago, said he is confident UNM's group of post players are up for tonight's challenge.
"We may not be the deepest team inside, but we work hard, and we play well together," he said. "We communicate well on the court and help each other out, which can be real distractions for players like Kaspars Kambala. We've played him before, and we know how to handle him."