The needle seemed to be pointing straight up for the University of New Mexico men's basketball team a little over a week ago — but three straight losses has seemingly erased any memory of that figurative instrument.
New Mexico had a losing record after 11 games and looked unimpressive in its non-conference slate to that point. But a blowout win over the University of the Southwest and two wins to begin Mountain West play seemed to harbor hope that the squad was beginning to come together.
One of the wins included an 85-58 thumping of the Nevada Wolfpack, which was the No. 6 team in the nation at the time, but the Lobos faded in its next game against UNLV. And followed up that loss with a pair of disappointing road efforts — getting blown out against Colorado State before losing 97-77 Tuesday night to the San Diego State Aztecs.
The Aztecs bested the Lobos 82-75 in a very competitive 2018 Mountain West Championship game, earning the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. SDSU never trailed on Saturday, but the game seemed to be trending toward being another thriller as the opening half drew toward the end.
UNM did just enough to hang around. Vance Jackson hit a 3-pointer to record the first Lobo points to make it a 4-3 game just over two minutes into the game. And despite trailing by double digits just five minutes into the contest, New Mexico made several runs to get close again — including a 11-2 spurt to pull within 21-19 with 11:20 remaining in the first half.
Later in the period, Corey Manigault capitalized off an Aztec turnover, coasting in for a layup to make it a one-point contest, 30-20 with just under six minutes to play.
The Lobos tied the game on a couple of occasions and climbed back once again after Carlton Bragg got a shot to fall in the final minute to trim the Aztec lead to 41-39. But for the second time in as many games, UNM surrendered some cheap points toward the end.
A New Mexico turnover in the closing seconds proved costly as SDSU's Aguek Arop released a 3-pointer to give the Aztecs a 44-39 cushion at the break.
It may not seem like a back-breaker, but those kinds of mistakes have been more and more commonplace for UNM as of late — and started an avalanche of problems that eventually buried the Lobos in the second half.
A trio of 3-pointers to open the Aztec scoring after the break gave San Diego State a double-digit advantage again just three minutes into the new half — a lead it increased to 15 with 13:26 to play after asserting control in the paint.
San Diego State shot really well, 53 percent, over the first 20 minutes, but increased its accuracy to over 57 percent in the second half to wind up hitting 38 shots in the game — including 10-of-23 from beyond the arc.
New Mexico hit 13 shots from long range, but were less efficient in doing so, jacking up 32 attempts in its one-dimensional approach to offense. The team turned the ball over 17 times, which the Aztecs cashed in for 27 points and was dominated in the paint to the tune of 50-16.
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Senior guard Anthony Mathis had a decent shooting night, tallying 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the floor to lead four starting Lobos who ended with with double digit scoring nights. But the rest of the team combined to contribute just 17 points off the bench — not nearly enough fire power to keep up with its opponent.
The dynamic duo of Jalen McDaniels and Devin Watson torched the Lobos inside and out, with each player pouring in 17 second-half points. McDaniels went 7-of-11 in the half, while Watson buried five triples to set the tempo for the Aztecs.
SDSU maintained its 15-point edge after McDaniels knocked down a pair of free throws about midway through the second half and continued to pull away from there.
Less than two minutes later, San Diego State increased its margin to 21 points, and held its biggest lead of the night, 26, after Watson drilled a 3-pointer to make it 91-65 with 3:47 to go. And the Aztecs were able to coast from there for the 97-77 victory over the Lobos.
It is difficult to pinpoint whether it is the offensive or the defensive woes that warrant more cause for concern for UNM head coach Paul Weir and his team. The inability to stop penetration, contest shots or win the rebounding battle has resulted in giving up 90-plus points in consecutive games — which isn't a good recipe for winning games.
But the team seems equally lost when trying to execute on offense as well, despite being 17 games into the season.
There is almost unquestionably good enough individual talent on the Lobo roster to make UNM one of the upper echelon team in the Mountain West, but are arguably way behind schedule on the its way to failing to reaching or maximizing their full potential.
The Lobos will try to end the current skid when they host the Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday, Jan.19 at 4 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 3 and aired on 770 KKOB.
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.