The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team suffered its first loss of the season to the University of Texas at El Paso Miners in its first away game of the season, going down 66-63.
UNM’s (4-1, 0-0 MWC) highly-touted offense sputtered against UTEP (4-0, 0-0 CUSA), scoring just 63 points after averaging over 90 points per game on the season.
UNM’s offense got off to a slow start and faced a 10-1 deficit after 10 unanswered UTEP points. This came just a game after the Lobos defeated McNeese State 90-80 last Saturday, Nov. 16.
Neither team could buy a bucket in a back-and-forth first half, as the Lobos and Miners each converted less than 40% of their field goal attempts in the opening frame. UTEP shot just 25% (7-28) from the three, continuing their struggles from behind the arc to start the season.
The Lobos came into Tuesday night’s game as one of the nation’s top free-throw shooting teams, a trend which continued playing against UTEP. Despite this, uncharacteristic shooting woes from the charity stripe prevented the Lobos from pulling away as UNM converted just 64.5% (20-31) of their free throws.
Senior guard JaQuan Lyle went 10-of-15 from the line himself, missing more free throws Tuesday night (5) than he had all season (1). Fresh off of being named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Week, Lyle once again propelled the Lobos’ offense, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds despite his difficulties on the line.
For the first time all season, UNM head coach Paul Weir’s defense featured full-court pressure and a zone look in the halfcourt, swarming UTEP’s guards and preventing the Miners from finding a rhythm on the offensive end. The tough Lobo offense resulted in 18 turnovers and kept UNM’s hopes alive.
"I thought we had some good defensive possessions, which we really haven’t shown yet," Weir said after the game. "We needed a few more stops down the stretch, but I actually thought today was a step. It sucks to lose, there’s no doubt about it, but I thought we showed a lot of things today."
UTEP’s defense struggled to keep up with UNM’s aggressive transition offense in the second half, keeping the game close deep into the game. Still, the Lobos failed to capitalize on their opportunities, at one point missing three straight transition layups in the half.
UNM recorded just seven assists as a team — far below their conference-leading 21 assists per game benchmark entering the matchup. For the first time all year, this Lobo offense failed to carry its early-season momentum.
With 2:20 remaining in the game, senior forward Carlton Bragg went down with an apparent leg injury and did not return, though he was able to walk off the court with assistance from the coaching staff. Bragg entered the game ranked 14th in the nation in total rebounding and currently averages a double-double per game. He finished with 10 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday night. After the game, Weir said he didn't know Bragg’s status going forward.
The second half saw seven lead changes in total, all coming in the last 6:32 of the game. Led by senior guard Daryl Edwards’ 20 points and four assists, UTEP matched stride with the previously undefeated Lobos for the entire game. Sophomore Jordan Lathon chipped in 10 second-half points, including a jumper with 26 seconds remaining, ultimately claiming the Miners’ lead for good.
The Lobos’ shooting issues proved to be its downfall, as UTEP eventually secured the victory after a missed three-point attempt by junior forward Makuach Maluach that would have taken the lead with two seconds remaining.
Lyle drained a last-second half-court heave which had the potential to tie the game, but replays showed that the ball was released just after the buzzer sounded. UTEP walked away with a 66-63 victory, now having beaten both UNM and New Mexico State University in the past week.
Tuesday’s game marked the beginning of a rivalry week for the Lobos, as UNM is slated to take on in-state rival NMSU in Las Cruces on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. before heading to New York to play No. 19-ranked Auburn in the Legends Classic.
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RullJoe