The University of New Mexico men's basketball took care of business in its home opener, taking down the Iona Gaels by a score of 90-83 at Dreamstyle Arena thanks to strong performances from a couple of transfers.
Iona (1-1) led for a good portion of the first half, benefitting from some careless turnovers and an inability from UNM to connect on its free throw attempts. Although the Lobos seemed to clean things up in the second half, they were unable to shake the Gaels, who continued to respond to runs and keep things close in the final minutes of the game.
UNM senior Dane Kuiper hadn't done much to fill up the stat sheet during the game up to that point, but picked an opportune time to step up and knock down a big 3-pointer to create the separation needed for the Lobos to hang on.
Head coach Paul Weir credited Kuiper for his effort and his committment to working on his shot and said the senior really deserved to see that shot go down. Weir also said he felt his team, especially the newcomers, got a slips at how important all the conditioning work was for them to have the legs needed to finish the game.
New Mexico (2-0) got off to a somewhat shaky start in the game, missing its opening shot and committing turnovers on three of the next four possessions.
Junior transfer Corey Manigault notched the first field goal for UNM to make it a 3-2 game and teammate Vance Jackson connected on back-to-back 3-point attempts to give the Lobos their first lead of the game and Keith McGee added another to build an 11-6 lead just over three minutes into the game.
But Iona responded with a 13-3 run to seize a five-point lead of its own as Ben Perez and Asante Gist starting heating up from outside. The Gaels struggled from beyond the arc in their opener against Albany — hitting just 24 percent of its attempts — but started 4-of-6 from long range against the Lobos to move in front 19-14 on the scoreboard.
The Gaels continued to maintain a lead, but New Mexico evened things up at 24-24 nearing the eight minute mark and another Jackson 3-pointer allowed the Lobos to reclaim the lead on the following possession.
Sophomore forward Vladimir Pinchuk showed some good footwork in the paint and got to the foul line as well. He hit a pair of free throws to extend the Lobo advantage to 31-24 and, with 5:30 left in the half, it looked like UNM might blow the game open.
But New Mexico left a lot of points at the charity stripe, making good on just 9-of-18 (50 percent) of its free attempts. That left the door open for Iona to storm back and the Gaels took advantage and tied things up just before halftime to make it 39-39.
Jackson led the Lobos in scoring with 13 first-half points, while Iona was paced by Gist, who matched that output.
As the game progressed into the second half, New Mexico found itself getting out-rebounded by Iona and saw the Gaels shooting a better percentage from 3-point range and at the free throw line.
But then, UNM found its groove.
New Mexico had fallen behind by five points on a couple of occasions, but the Lobos connected on 11 of its first 12 free throws (91.7 percent) in the second half to allow the team to withstand some back-and-forth runs and stay in the thick of things. McGee knocked down a pair of freebies with just under eight minutes remaining to pull to within 72-71.
And on the next trip down the court, Manigault picked the pocket of Iona's Isaiah Still, stealing the ball and the lead with a thundering dunk at the other end — putting the Lobos up for good with about seven minutes to play.
But Iona continued to hang around, and protect a slim lead. The Lobos looked six attempts wi, 8-6, at the 17:56 mark.
UNM sophomore Makuach Maluach gave the Lobos a five-point bulge, 80-75, but Iona responded in kind on its next possession. Anthony Mathis buried a deep one as well, but the Gaels got to the free throw line and chipped into the lead again to keep it a single-possession game.
With just under two minutes to play, Kuiper buried a corner 3 that put the Lobos up by six points, and Mathis got the Gaels in transition and slashed to the hoop for a layup to make it 88-80.
The Lobos were able to protect that lead and hold on for a 90-83 victory and improve to 2-0 on the young season. And by the end, New Mexico had found its way on the right side of the rebounding battle, 41-34, and finish 12-of-30 (40 percent) from beyond the arc.
Five Lobos finished in double figures as Manigault led all scorers with 20 points on the night. Jackson finished with 18, while Mathis and McGee chipped in 14 and 13 points, respectively. Pinchuk added 10 more to the cause.
Up next, the Lobos will try to secure Weir's first victory against his old squad when New Mexico State visits The Pit on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. The Aggies swept the season series over New Mexico last year.
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 email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.