Fans of the University of New Mexico Men's Basketball team saw an underwhelming performance for much of its match-up with rival New Mexico State on Saturday at Dreamstyle Arena — The Pit, watching their team drop a 98-94 contest.
Head coach Paul Weir credited the Aggies for playing the way they did and said NMSU's A.J. Harris had an outstanding individual performance — perhaps the best he's seen on that court since coming to Albuquerque. Weir took responsibility for the loss when asked if there was one reason besides Harris that caused the Lobo loss.
"I think at the end of the day, we're not as far along as where we need to be 18 months into me being here, and that's on me," Weir said. "So if there is one reason, it's Paul Weir."
Both teams started with a quick tempo in the opening stages of the game. Harris opened the scoring for NMSU and junior transfer Vance Jackson answered with a jump shot of his own for UNM's first basket as the two squads traded a pair of buckets in the first two minutes.
New Mexico (2-1) seized an early advantage using a 9-1 spurt to jump out to a 13-5 lead. The run was capped by a Vladimir Pinchuk jumper as five different Lobos scored from the floor up to the point and appeared to be finding their groove.
But the visiting team strung together a 12-0 run to swing things back in their favor, getting wide open looks both in the lane and from beyond the arc. The porous defense continued throughout the first half and the Lobos struggled from the line in the opening half for the second straight game (5-of-10 at one point) to add to the list of problems.
That allowed New Mexico State (2-1) to stretch its lead to as many as eight in the first half after Harris and Mohamed Thiam each connected on 3-point attempts to make it 34-26 with just over four minutes remaining.
New Mexico cut the lead to four on a couple of occasions, but found itself down by eight again after Thiam threw down a thunderous dunk to put the Aggies up 44-36 with 24 seconds remaining.
The Lobos were probably fortunate to be down by just six points at the half, thanks to a pair of Corey Manigault free throws just before the break.
Jackson led all scorers with 12 first-half points, while Harris and Thiam both contributed nine points to pace the Aggie attack.
Harris seemed to have an extra gear and was consistently able to penetrate the lane, forcing the Lobo defense to collapse and leave outside shooters open, or just finishing at the hoop himself. That trend continued in the second half as the Aggies started to pull away.
Senior guards Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper each opened the second half with 3-pointers to get the Lobos within three points. But Harris answered right away at the other end both times as the Aggies showed they intended to, not only maintain, but build on its halftime lead.
Harris gave the Aggies a double-digit advantage, 54-44, by the 16:31 mark and the Lobos had to fight over the next several minutes just to tread water.
However, New Mexico State eventually made another strong push and busting the game wide open, catapulting to a 19-point margin with 11 minutes left in the game just after Mathis got tagged with his fourth personal foul —sending him to the bench — and Weir had gotten hit with a technical foul.
Weir said it just felt like four or five 50-50 calls in a row had gone against his team and voiced his displeasure. He said he wasn't trying to get hit with one and has been more demonstrative in the past without drawing a technical, but didn't argue the referee's decision to levy one.
Several fans starting making their way to the exits a little bit early following that exchange. Mathis said he appreciated the fans that came out and stayed, but the early departures were something Mathis took note of.
"It was funny because we were down 18, 17 points and everybody started leaving and I was like 'I want to make these people pay for leaving,'" he said.
With Mathis on the bench, several Lobos played their part in chipping away at the Aggie lead. After re-entering the game, he saw Kuiper connect on a long-range shot to make it 76-64 with 7:23 to play and Mathis buried one himself a couple of minutes later to finally make it a single-digit deficit again, 80-72 with plenty of time left to make something happen.
But the Aggies responded again and things looked all but over when Shunn Buchanan stole the ball from Jackson and later scored on a layup with 2:25 remaining to put the lead back up to 14 and seemingly shut down any hope for a comeback.
However, New Mexico came storming back. Mathis and Jackson poured in 3-pointers and eventually New Mexico State starting missing free throw attempts to leave the door open for the Lobos.
Jackson made a pair of free throws and made it 94-86 inside a minute to play and added another 3-ball with with 24.4 seconds on the clock to pull his team closer at 96-92. Mathis added a layup after the Aggies missed another pair from the charity stripe and UNM was back in business.
The Lobos then forced a steal with about nine seconds remaining and actually had a chance to tie the game or go for the win. Mathis didn't have enough room to get off a deep one and elected to drive the lane instead, but ended up losing the ball and turned it over.
New Mexico State was able to sink both attempts from the foul line with 1.2 seconds left in the game and escape with the 98-94 victory.
Harris ended up with 31 points on 9-of-11 shooting, many of which were uncontested. He was a perfect 6-of-6 from beyond the arc and hit 7-of-10 from the foul line.
The Lobos had four in double figures including three players who recorded 20-point games. Jackson had a team-high 27 points, Mathis scored 22 and Manigault finished with 20.
The two teams will face each other again soon when the Lobos travel to Las Cruses to face New Mexico State on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. New Mexico will be looking to rebound from the loss and get back in the win column when it hosts UTEP on Saturday in The Pit on Nov. 24 at 5:30 p.m.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.
Matthew Narvaiz is a sports beat reporter and senior writer for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers football, however, he also contributes content to other sports. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.