The UNM men's basketball team has reached a whole new low that seemed unimaginable when the Lobos built a promising 12-2 record to begin the season.
Since the team's 75-44 road loss to Stanford University Jan. 20, UNM has plummeted with a 1-6 record, and its play has been marred by scoring droughts and atrocious defense. It hit what fans hope is rock bottom with a 53-49 road loss to the Air Force Academy.
However, with seven tough games remaining in conference play, the forecast doesn't get much easier for the struggling, sluggish team.
"I feel very bad for our fans because we knew this would be a tough game coming in, and right now, I think it is very obvious we're a very mediocre team," UNM coach Fran Fraschilla said during a post-game radio interview. "I guess I blame myself for this loss. It's kind of disappointing. I don't know what to say except that we just are not a good basketball team right now."
Air Force was supposed to be the Lobos' easiest road game in the Mountain West Conference and as close to a guaranteed win as UNM could get, but the Falcons have proved this season - particularly Saturday night - that they cannot be taken for granted. The Lobos now have an overall record of 13-8, 3-5 in conference play, while Air Force improved to 7-15 overall and 2-6 in the Mountain West.
The Falcons' Princeton-style offense, which is methodical, slow and involves quick cuts to the basket, exposed the Lobos' difficulty sustaining defensive pressure in a half-court set. However, it wasn't so much Air Force's play as it was UNM's complete breakdown on offense and defense that cost them the game.
The first half was not the Lobos' most productive 20 minutes, but the team headed to the locker room with a 30-26 lead. It was the second half that killed UNM's hopes for a win.
For much of the half the Lobos looked like they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, much less any baskets. During the first 16 minutes, the Lobos went one-of-12 from the field for 8 percent, while Air Force hit nine-of-12 shots for 75 percent from the field. UNM finished shooting 29 percent from the field in the second half and 40 percent for the game, while the Falcons closed the second half hitting 59 percent from the field and 56 percent for the game.
"The last four games we just haven't guarded anybody," Fraschilla said. "We're a little fragmented right now. We worked hard to prepare, but we obviously didn't defend their offense as well as we did when we beat them at home."
Two things saved the Lobos from completely imploding in the second half - a surprisingly strong performance from the free-throw line and Ruben Douglas' shooting spurt late in the game.
The Lobos shot 70 percent from the free-throw line, with forward Wayland White, who has struggled with free throws, finishing five-of-seven from the line. However, UNM came up painfully short at the free-throw line late in the game when the shots could have given the Lobos the win.
"The free throws are about the only positive thing we can say, but we did miss some crucial free throws down the stretch," Fraschilla said. "It was great to see Wayland make some, because a five-for-seven night for him is awesome, but the reality of it is we didn't make some free throws in crucial situations and we also didn't make some big field goals down the stretch."
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Douglas, who was late for a team meeting and did not start, failed to score in the first half, but he was the only Lobo to hit a field goal in the second half and finished with 10 points. With 5:47 left in the game, Douglas went on a tear offensively, hitting a quick series of jump shots to help the Lobos climb out of its 49-39 deficit.
Unfortunately for UNM, Air Force's Lamoni Yazzie also woke up in the second half. He scored 10 points, including a layup around Douglas and two free throws in the final two minutes to seal the win for the Falcons.
Despite all of Douglas' heroics, it was his turnover in the final 12 seconds that may have cost UNM the game. Air Force guard Jarvis Croft stole the ball from Douglas as he was trying to split two defenders with the Lobos down by two. After a timeout, the Lobos fouled Yazzie, who hit two free throws and pushed the Falcon lead to four points. An errant full-court pass to Douglas with 10 seconds remaining resulted in a turnover on UNM's final game possession.
In addition to the scoring drought and defensive trouble, UNM tied the shorter Air Force team with 21 rebounds. White, a forward and the Lobos' best leaper, finished with no rebounds, while Douglas, a guard, led the team with eight.
"It was one of those nights and for awhile something different has been going wrong every game," Fraschilla said. "It's not a fun feeling, but right now we have to find out what we're made of and find out what we've got in us in terms of guys stepping up and taking responsibility for us playing a little bit better basketball."
The Lobos must now regroup and prepare for Georgia State University tonight at 7:30 p.m. UNM had just two days to rebound and prepare for the 21-3 Panthers.
"We now have to get ready for a team that's much tougher and is probably on par with Wyoming in Georgia State," Fraschilla said, comparing the Lobos' next opponent to the Mountain West Conference's leader that defeated UNM at home 82-78 Jan. 29. "We're going to find out what we're made of in the next three weeks because we have to put a streak together."