The University of New Mexico men's basketball team did not get off to a great start against the UTEP Miners on Saturday, but erupted in the second half to earn an 84-78 victory.
It took nearly four minutes for either team to get on the scoreboard, but UTEP's Kaosi Ezeagu broke the stalemate with a layup at the 16:16 mark to open things up. The Lobos remained scoreless for over seven and a half minutes before Vance Jackson made good on a 3-point attempt.
A little past the midway point in the first half, more than 11,000 fans at Dreamstyle Arena were likely in disbelief. The Lobos had still managed to score just the lone basket and UTEP sophomore guard Evan Gilyard had stuck a pair of 3-pointers in transition following blocks that gave the Miners an 14-3 advantage.
UNM head coach Paul Weir said he wasn't surprised UTEP started the game with success on defense because it is something the team has been doing, but also pointed out his squad missed some opportunities.
"I mean we had missed dunks, we had missed layups, we were doing reverse layups," Weir said. "We were just doing some stuff around the rim that ordinarily, we're getting to the free throw line (or) finishing."
New Mexico did get to the free throw line with regularity in the first half, and did a much better job than it had in previous games, going 12-of-13 from the charity stripe in the first 20 minutes. And although UNM cooled down in the second half, the Lobos were still 75 percent from the foul line for the game.
But the Lobos were an unattractive 23 percent shooting from the floor in the first half, connecting on just seven field goals, and were perhaps fortunate to be down by just five points, 34-29, going into halftime.
UTEP shot a respectable 41 percent and made five 3-pointers, but left some points at the free throw line. The Miners were still up by 10 points in the first half with five minutes to play, but the free throw shooting by Lobos allowed them to cut the lead in half.
Weir said the team was fortunate enough to play solid defense early in the game to prevent UTEP from building a lead that was insurmountable.
And as the game progress the law of averages balanced out — the Lobos were as hot in the second half as they were cold in the first.
Senior guard Anthony Mathis was saddled with foul trouble in the first half — picking up two fouls within 10 seconds of each other — and was limited to two points. But he got fire and was nearly perfect coming out of the locker room. He hit all five of his shots in the second half, including 4-of-4 from beyond the arc and was 2-of-3 from the free throw line.
His 16 points helped eventually swing momentum in the Lobos' favor as the team shot an impressive 68 percent in the second half and went 8-of-11 from 3-point land.
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UTEP hit a layup in the opening moments of the second half to take a seven-point lead and maintained that advantage for about the first five minutes or so, leading 47-40 after an Efe Odigie layup with 15:19 to play.
But UNM point guard Keith McGee nailed a 3-point basket and later added a dunk as the Lobos quickly reduced the deficit to two points. The Miners made another push to try to stretch out the lead, but back-to-back 3-balls by Mathis gave the Lobos its first lead, 55-54, with 12:11 remaining in the game — one the Lobos refused to give back.
The Miners tied the game with about eight minutes to play, but New Mexico put together an 8-1 run capped by another long ball off the hot hand of Mathis to make it 67-60.
Seemingly every time UTEP tried to put together one final run, the Lobos responded with an answer to quell the notion. When the Miners pulled to within two, Karim Ezzeddine connected from long range to create separation. Later, it was Dane Kuiper hitting a big-time shot from deep, elevating his team to a 77-72 advantage with under two minutes to play.
And Mathis removed all doubt, sticking his final 3-pointer with about 20 seconds left in the game to extend the Lobo margin to 82-76 before knocking down a pair of free throws in the final seconds to make it an 84-78 win.
Gilyard led all scorers with a game-high 22 points, while Mathis registered a team-high 18 points for the Lobos. All five UTEP starters ended up in double figures, but it wasn't enough to overcome the second half surge of New Mexico, which saw four players log double-digit scoring performances.
The Lobos outscored the Miners 37-7 off the bench, which is probably to be expected considering the deep rotation UNM uses. But New Mexico also held a 25-15 advantage in points scored off turnovers and was good on 61 percent of its 3-point attempts to overcome its deficiencies.
Up next, UNM will travel to Illinois to face Bradley in the 2018 Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge. The game is slated to take place Dec. 1 at 6 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.