The University of New Mexico men's basketball team fell behind early, but got a big lift to close out the first half and eventually defeat Utah State going away on Wednesday night.
New Mexico (13-14, 8-6 MW) dispatched of the Utah State Aggies by a score of 78-63, which gave the Lobos the inside track, placing them in a four-way tie for fourth place, in the Mountain West conference standings.
Antino Jackson opened the scoring with a 3-pointer en route to the Lobos scoring the first five points of the game. But the Aggies responded with an 8-0 spurt and the game of runs was on.
Sophomore guard Koby McEwen lit up the Lobos in the team's first matchup on Jan. 31, going off for 31 points in the Aggies 89-80 win. Although he hit USU's first bucket, the guard found himself in foul trouble and only logged nine minutes in the first half.
But fellow sophomore guard Sam Merrill stepped up to put the team on his shoulders, drilling four 3-pointers in the first half to lead all scorers with 18 points. His sharp shooting gave the Aggies a 27-22 lead with 4:35 remaining in the opening period, but UNM responded well to end the half.
The Lobos regained momentum after junior guard Anthony Mathis caught fire in the final 3:12 of the opening frame, scoring 11 of his 13 first-half points over that span. His outburst moved UNM back in front and helped the team garner a 36-34 halftime edge.
UNM was probably fortunate to have the lead at the break, considering it was shooting just 21 percent from the field over eight minutes into the game. The Lobos helped themselves by forcing 11 first-half turnovers and closing the half strong behind Mathis.
But Utah State came out firing in the second half, scoring the first eight points after the break to seize a 42-36 lead. Merrill continued to heat up, opening with back-to-back hits from beyond the arc, and it looked like the Lobos could be in trouble.
New Mexico was able to string together a 7-0 run to briefly reclaim a 43-42 lead on a Dane Kuiper long-range shot. Utah State responded with free throw and a Merrill layup to move back out in front 45-43, but went ice cold afterward.
The Aggies went nearly nine minutes between Merrill's layup at the 14:30 mark before they finally connected on another field goal — a 3-pointer by Diogo Brito with 5:48 to play.
But by then, the damage had already been done. During the span, the Lobos forced seven Utah State turnovers and seized the opportunity to jump out to a double-digit lead — spear-headed by a 13-2 run to snag a 63-52 advantage.
A pair of dunks by Lobo freshman Makuach Maluach and senior Sam Logwood pushed the lead to 12 as the clock wound down to five minutes left to play.
Utah State was able to pull within eight points after Merrill connected from the outside again with less than three minutes remaining, but the Lobos closed the second half in the same strong fashion they did just before halftime.
Another Mathis 3-pointer was bookended by a pair of emphatic Logwood dunks that punctuated the team's 78-63 triumph over the Aggies.
Merrill had a game-high 33 points for Utah State, but his stellar individual performance was not enough to overcome 23 turnovers — which lead to a 23-8 advantage for the Lobos in points scored off those mistakes.
Utah State outshot New Mexico from the field, going 51.3 percent as a team, but the Lobos hoisted up 16 more shots in the game thanks to the disparity in turnovers. UNM committed nine turnovers over the course of the game.
Mathis led a quartet of Lobos that finished the night with double-digit scoring performances. He put up 25 points making seven 3-pointers in the game. New Mexico tied a team record for most 3-pointers made in a single season (301), according to a release.
Maluach posted 16 points in the game and Logwood and junior guard Chris McNeal both came off the bench and contributed 10 points to the cause. The Lobo bench was a major factor, outscoring the Aggies 33-7.
The next couple of games could be critical for UNM as the team will travel to Wyoming to take on the Cowboys on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. before returning to Albuquerque to host UNLV that Sunday. The Lobos are tied with both teams in the conference standings.
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.