The University of New Mexico men's basketball team has known for a while that its only path to the NCAA Tournament is to win the Mountain West Championship later in the month.
But that doesn't mean the final three regular season games aren't still important — and the Lobos treated Saturday's bout against Colorado State as such, winning 77-65 to improve to 6-10 in conference play and 12-16 overall.
The win puts UNM in a tie with Boise State for 9th in the conference and keeps alive the possibility of climbing higher in the seeding prior to the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.
New Mexico led wire-to-wire against the Rams and showed offensive capability — particularly with its interior execution — at a level that fans have not often, if at all, this season.
Vance Jackson and Carlton Bragg opened up the Lobo scoring with layups and senior guard Anthony Mathis, who struggled shooting in the team's previous loss to MW last-place San Jose State, connected on a 3-pointer for an early 7-2 lead.
Colorado State came back to tie the game twice before Makuach Maluach rattled off five straight points — just the beginning of a big night for the Lobo sophomore.
The Lobos were pretty much able to maintain that lead through the under-8 media timeout, fostering a 23-17 lead with 7:54 remaining.
Back-to-back layups by Jackson and Bragg again later in the half gave the Lobos a double-digit lead with about three and a half minutes remaining, but the Rams closed the gap and had a chance to cut the lead to three in the final minute.
Instead, Nico Carvacho missed a layup and Makuach came up big at the other end — finishing a layup while getting fouled and completing the 3-point play for a 35-27 halftime advantage.
Carvacho had a big half, posting 11 points and 8 rebounds — accounting for all but two of the other individual rebounds registered by his teammates. But Maluach led all scorers with 13 in the first half and continued having a hot hand throughout the game.
The Lobos led by double digits for most of the second half and flexed its biggest lead with 7:29 remaining after Jackson drilled a 3-point basket to go up 62-43.
And although Colorado State responded with a 10-2 and cut the lead to eight on several occasions, the Lobos showed some poise in closing things out.
Maluach hit a big layup to quell a run and New Mexico essentially iced the game by connecting on eight straight free throws to notch the 77-65 win.
One of the biggest disparities in the game was difference in rebounding. Outside of Carvacho, no Ram player had more than two rebounds and the team was crushed 47-26 on the boards.
Bragg and Corey Manigault set the tone on the glass, swiping a combined 25 boards. It was a nice addition to Maluach's double-double performance that included 23 points and 10 rebounds to pace four Lobos that surpassed the double-digit scoring plateau.
Mathis wound up with 16, Jackson had 12 and sophomore guard Keith McGee hauled in 10 on a quiet shooting night to help the cause.
New Mexico will try to improve its footing in the standing when it returns to Dreamstyle Arena on Wednesday, March 6 to host the Boise State Broncos. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip time.
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.