A huge 20-point, 14-rebound double-double from senior forward Carlton Bragg proved to be the difference in the University of New Mexico men’s basketball (7-2) team’s 72-63 triumph over the University of Montana Grizzlies (3-5) on Sunday afternoon.
With the win, UNM improved to 7-2 and maintained their perfect record at home going into the start of conference play later this week.
UNM’s shooting struggles continued Sunday as the Lobos shot just 43.1% (22-for-51) from the field and 62.9% from the line (22-for-35), including a nine-minute stretch in the first half where UNM failed to record a good field goal.
A back-and-forth start saw Montana grab an early 14-10 lead, though New Mexico’s 12 first-half points in the paint gave the Lobos a 32-26 lead after the first frame.
"We just didn’t have the legs and the juice (on our early shots) I would have wanted," head coach Paul Weir said.
"I don't think it was a mental thing or an engagement thing. I thought our practices and our preparation for this game were good. We just didn’t have a lot of burst tonight."
The Lobos were unable to put Montana away to start the second half, as the Grizzlies tied the game at 47-47 and again at 50-50 midway through the second half, thanks to a three-pointer from senior Montana guard Kendal Manuel.
A 7-0 UNM run fueled by four straight free throws by Bragg put UNM up for good at 56-50 deep into the second frame, and three straight Bragg baskets in the low post stopped a late Montana push. The Lobos made 14 of their last 16 free throws — including 10 straight at one point — after starting just 8-for-19 from the charity stripe. Bragg’s 9-for-11 effort from the line helped erase UNM’s otherwise woeful overall shooting night.
Coming off a long road trip and with end-of-semester finals coming up, the Lobos showed signs of fatigue Sunday. Bragg’s bounce-back effort pulled UNM to victory, securing the best UNM start during Weir’s tenure.
"We just gotta grind through it, you know," Bragg said. "This is the life we chose."
Three Lobos reached double figures, as Bragg’s performance was supplemented by senior guard JaQuan Lyle’s 16-point, 5-rebound outing and senior Zane Martin’s 11 points off the bench.
Despite Sunday’s shooting woes, Weir's players are confident going forward.
"For sure, we definitely are ready for conference play," Bragg said.
New Mexico will begin conference play this Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at home against Boise State before heading to Wyoming for a Saturday afternoon matchup.
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe