LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Lobo men's basketball played a first half that may have been the worst of the season before a sophomore transfer decided enough was enough and willed his team to victory to advance in the 2019 Mountain West Basketball Championship.
Former UCONN product Vance Jackson was wide open for a corner 3 and called for the ball early in the second half. His teammate didn't see him though and instead the Lobos threw up a contested shot that was off the mark.
But Jackson didn't pout.
He slashed to the hoop and secured an offensive rebound, giving his squad a second opportunity, though UNM failed to cash in on that opportunity. Shortly thereafter, the sophomore took the onus on himself to erase a double-digit deficit and stun Wyoming with a 20-2 run that changed the complexion of the game.
Wyoming helped the Lobos' cause by showing panic — committing turnovers, getting sped up on offense and steering away from what helped build originally build the big first-half lead.
UNM head coach Paul Weir said he actually thought the tempo was right where he wanted it, but some anxiousness and missed layups early on created an early deficit.
New Mexico trailed by three points at the first media timeout — the difference in the game being a Justin James 3-pointer at that time.
But the Cowboys continued to extend its advantage as the first half progressed. James and teammate Jake Hendricks each contributed three 3-pointers in the first half as the team connected on 7-of-12 — a gaudy 58 percent success rate — from long range overall.
That, coupled with New Mexico's inability to shoot the ball — UNM started 2-of-13 for the game and shot just 27.6 percent in the opening period — provided a recipe that led to a 38-27 halftime advantage.
But the Cowboys went just 1-of-10 from the 3-point line in the second half.
Carlton Bragg was able to cut into Wyoming's 13-point second-half lead with a layup, but the Lobos had shown little resistance on defense to that point. And there probably weren't too many people who could've forecasted what was about to happen from that point forward.
Jackson rattled off 13 straight points, hitting a pair of 3-pointers sprinkled in with some layups to give New Mexico its first lead of the game. The second triple gave UNM a 49-47 advantage with about nine minutes to play.
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Wyoming was able to tie the game after James got a layup to fall, but sophomore center Vladimir Pinchuck took it right back with an old-fashioned 3-point play.
Then Jackson punctuated the extended run by stealing the ball off the inbound and attacking the rim with a thunderous dunk, putting the Lobos up 54-49.
Jackson said the explosion came as a result of he and the team's staff realizing the season was on the line. He said the team had to do whatever needed to be done.
Wyoming was able to make it a single-possession game on several occasions, getting as close as 62-61 with about three and a half minutes remaining.
In the past, New Mexico has struggled to close out games — particularly close ones. But the Lobos finished strong, scoring eight straight points — which included back-to-back Maluach dunks — to reassert control.
The Cowboys tried to extend the game by putting the Lobos at the free throw line, but couldn't capitalize despite UNM missing several down the stretch. New Mexico was able to do enough to put the game away and walk away with a 78-68 win over Wyoming.
James led all scorers with a game-high 31 points, while Jackson erupted for 21 in the second half to post a team-high 26 to pace four Lobos who wound up in double figures. Maluach ended up with 13 points, Keith McGee with 12 and Bragg chipped in 10.
Weir said one of the lessons he imparted on his team today was mental execution. The Lobos next opponent, second-seeded Utah State, is a team UNM will likely not be able to contend with if it falls into an early hole as it did on Wednesday.
But the head coach pointed out the experience today could prove valuable considering the majority of men on the roster were without MW Tournament experience prior to this game.
Tip-time is scheduled for 6 p.m. Pacific/7 p.m. Mountain at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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.