For the third year in a row, it was 1-and-done for the UNM men’s basketball team on its Mountain West Tournament journey.
The Lobos lost its quarterfinals matchup to the Fresno State Bulldogs 65-60 in Las Vegas, Nevada on Thursday, March 9, finishing their season with a 17-14 record.
The loss was a tough pill to swallow for Lobo fans, as it was New Mexico that held the lead for most of the game — nearly 30 minutes to be exact. Fresno State was in front for just over six minutes, but played its strongest basketball when it mattered most.
UNM head coach Craig Neal said the result wasn’t what the team wanted, but overall, he was proud of the Lobos’ efforts.
“So it’s just one of those things,” Neal said. “I thought we did a nice job. We kept them off the boards, which we wanted to do, but they got one big rebound that we didn’t need them to get....just came up short.”
The Lobos began the first 20-minute period strong, amassing an early 22-10 lead after a 3-pointer by junior guard Elijah Brown near the midway point.
New Mexico wouldn’t be able to sustain the hot start, allowing the Bulldogs to inch closer and eventually tie the affair up 26-26 at the 4:07 mark.
Fresno State eventually got its first lead of the night when a flagrant foul on Brown allowed Fresno State’s Terrel Carter II to sink buckets from the foul line.
The Lobos hadn’t quite lost all control, though, and were up 35-33 with 23 seconds remaining. However, a 3 – pointer by Fresno State’s Deshon Taylor gave the Bulldogs a 36-35 advantage at halftime.
The cherry and silver team began the second period began with the same energy it exhibited in the first half.
UNM senior forward Tim Williams scored a layup on the first possession of the second half and the Lobos maintained the lead in the early going again.
It took about nine minutes for the Bulldogs to find their way back to the top at 46-45 when Taylor connected on a jumper.
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With 3:34 remaining, the Lobos saw their last lead of the night when senior center Obij Aget got a steal that allowed sophomore guard/forward Dane Kuiper to get a layup and make the score 54-53 in the Lobos’ favor.
Taylor answered with a three of his own to put Fresno State back on top, and a turnover by Brown was converted into more Bulldog points.
Brown tried to shoot the Lobos back into the game, but his two made 3-pointers were the only points New Mexico tallied in the final three and a half minutes, a game-ending performance that might haunt the Lobos.
The Bulldogs held on for a 65-60 to advance to eliminate the Lobos and advance to the next round of the Mountain West Tournament — a date with top-seeded Nevada. They would lose that matchup 83-72, as Nevada went on to win the tournament.
Two players from each team saw double figures. For the Lobos, it was Brown with 16 points, and Williams’ 15. The Bulldogs saw Taylor put up 21 points with teammate Jaron Hopkins contributing 12.
New Mexico finished the night shooting at 40.7 percent from the field, better than Fresno’s 36.8 percent.
The Lobos also outrebounded the Bulldogs, hauling in 37 boards to outwork their opponent on the glass by three rebounds.
The free-throw line is one area that did the Lobos in on Thursday. Normally making around 75 percent of their opportunities from the charity stripe, they shot an uncharacteristically low 54.5 percent on Thursday.
Brown, who made one of his two free show attempts, was not happy with his own performance.
“My percentage has been horrendous almost the whole year,” he said. “So the fact that I wasn’t able to get to the free throw line, I would say I settled too much. I didn’t make adjustments.”
Brown’s shooting from the field was not great either, as he went 6-for-21 in the game. Most of his points came off his three made 3-pointers.
Williams got to the line eight times, the most for the Lobos, and made five of his free shots.
He also went 5-for-12 on the field. He was asked post-game if he thought he was rusty after missing a month of play due to injury. Williams said he wouldn’t use that as an excuse, rather saying he rushed his shots.
Neal said there were things the team could have done better but said the Lobos had a lot to be proud of from the season.
“These kids never gave up....Some people questioned them. I thought they really hung together as a group. I’ll take this year — I had a lot of fun,” the head coach said. “I wish we would have won more games, which we all do. But we had some adversity that we weren’t expecting.”
Isabel Gonzalez is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. She mainly covers men’s soccer and basketball. She can be reached at sports @dailylobo.com or on Twitter @cisabelg.