The Lobo men's basketball team overcame a sizable halftime deficit and even took a late lead — appearing to be in line for an improbable come-from-behind victory before a series of unfortunate events erased all of that.
New Mexico (9-11, 3-5 MW) fell behind early — something Lobo fans have probably grown accustomed to by now — trailing 22-8 to Utah State a little more than halfway through the first half.
There wasn't a lot to be cheerful about outside of a 9-0 run that encompassed back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers — one from point guard Keith McGee and a pair of triples from sophomore Makuach Maluach.
That spurt and eight free throws accounted for all but 10 of New Mexico's 27 first half points.
Senior guard Anthony Mathis was held scoreless, the team shot just 27.6 percent and UNM was probably fortunate to be trailing by just nine points at the half.
But something happened after halftime and UNM looked like a completely different team.
Head coach Paul Weir said the team spoke at halftime about playing basketball the right way — something that didn't happen in the first half.
Despite what he described as looking young and not playing fundamentally sound in the opening frame, the team. And for at least 20 minutes, the team exhibited the heart, grit and and passion that Lobo fans have been clamoring for all year.
UNM big man Carlton Bragg poured in a turnaround jumper to open the scoring in the second half, but Utah State's Sam Merrill drilled a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 10 points — something he and his teammates did on five more occasions over the first seven minutes or so of the second half, denying the Lobos opportunities to mount a comeback.
New Mexico had played much better in the second half up to that point, but still found itself trailing 50-40 with 12:51 to play after Merrill knocked down yet another 3-pointer. It could have been easy for the UNM players to feel like maybe it just wasn't their day, pack it in and give up.
New Mexico made back-to-back layups and got a huge boost when sophomore Vladimir Pinchuk drew a charge on Utah State's Neemias Queta — his fourth personal foul, which relegated the talented big to the Aggie bench.
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The Lobos took advantage and Anthony Mathis found his shot and dropped in a deep 3-pointer, followed by a pair of Bragg free throws to cap a 9-0 run that pulled the team within 50-49 with 9:07 to play.
Utah State tried to reestablish control as Merrill struck back with a jumper to go back up by three. And teammate Brock Miller answered another long-range bomb by Mathis that tied the game with a 3-pointer of his own.
Miller made another shot to give his Aggies a 59-56 lead with 6:53 remaining, but Lobos applied the defensive clamps and allowed just two more Utah State field goals the rest of the way.
New Mexico's Vance Jackson tied the game on the next possession with a shot from beyond the arc and took a 62-61 lead a minute later — it's first since the score was 2-0 — after Mathis uncorked his fourth made 3-pointer of the half.
After Utah State connected from long range, Mathis drove to the basket and tied things up with a layup to give him 16 points — all in the second half — and tie the score at 64-64 with 4:00 on the clock.
Jackson put the Lobos back on top with a made jumper about a minute later and UNM had an opportunity to add to the lead with 1:39 left after Bragg snagged a loose ball and was fouled. At that same time, officials noticed Mathis bleeding from what appeared to be his lip and halted play.
After a review, referees apparently did not find anything malicious that precipitated the injury and play resumed with Bragg at the foul line.
That's when the first act in the series of unfortunate events unfolded. Bragg missed the front end of the "one-and-one" free throw attempt and Utah State inched a little closer after Taylor Quinn split his free throw attempts at the other end, making it 66-65 in favor of the Lobos.
New Mexico missed a layup on its next possession, but got an important stop before being dealt a second unfortunate event with 31.9 seconds left when Anthony Mathis was whistled for a backcourt violation.
The problem — it wasn't a backcourt violation.
"I feel like Sean Payton," Weir said in the postgame conference, referencing the New Orleans Saints head coach and his team being victimized by a missed call in the recent NFC Championship game against the Rams. “Unfortunately one play for us, does mean a lot. We don't have a large margin (for) error."
The head coach said he didn't want to suggest the officiating or that one call was the reason the Lobos lost the game, but Weir said he did watch the film and determined it was not over-and-back.
After the game, the Mountain West released a statement which read, "After postgame video review, the Mountain West has determined the whistle for a backcourt violation in the final minute of the Utah State at New Mexico men’s basketball game was incorrect."
The call apparently was not reviewable and it is not possible to say it definitively changed the outcome of the game, but it definitely impacted it. Instead of potentially forcing Utah State to foul the Lobos and put them on the line, the Aggies instead had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
New Mexico seemed to focus on taking away Utah State's 3-point scoring options, forcing the Aggies to make someone other than Merrill or Miller take a shot. Unfortunately for the Lobos, Utah State still got a good look at a 3-point shot after the defense collapsed on Merrill and made him give up the ball.
Sophomore guard Abel Porter stepped into his shot and fired a nothing-but-net triple to put his team back on top 68-66. It was only the second made field goal for Utah State since the 6:53 mark — both by Porter (who finished with six points) — but, with just 1.6 seconds remaining, it was enough to suck the air out of The Pit.
A final heave from Mathis at the buzzer was no good and Utah State ended up escaping with a win that looked almost certain just 20 minutes earlier.
The win improved Utah State's record to 15-5 overall and 5-2 in Mountain West play and into a second-place tie in the standings, while New Mexico fell to ninth place.
New Mexico will get a bye before heading out on the road to face Fresno State, which is also tied for second in the MW, on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.