For the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team (6-2, 0-0 MWC), last week’s Roman Legends Classic told a tale of redemption.
After getting routed by the 18th-ranked Auburn Tigers 84-59 Monday night, Nov. 25, the Lobos bounced back Tuesday and locked down the Wisconsin Badgers 59-50 while securing their first win over a Power 5 conference team since 2012.
On Monday night at the Barclays Center in New York, Auburn's slate witnessed a UNM team that didn’t quite seem ready for the national stage. A layup from Makuach Maluach put the Lobos up 14-9 early in the first half. This put UNM in front of a top 20 team — one which appeared in 2018's Final Four. With 33 minutes left to play, Auburn bandaged the bleeding and put up 16 unanswered points to kick off a 25-4 run. That sent the Lobos scrambling, eventually ending the first half down 35-24 to the Tigers.
UNM’s dynamic lead guard JaQuan Lyle failed to find a rhythm, finishing with just two points on 1-for-10 shooting after getting benched early in the second half. This came as a coaching decision that head coach Paul Weir credited to illness.
"He was throwing up at halftime," Weir said after Monday's loss. "I didn’t really want him to go back out there ... He’s just unfortunately not feeling the greatest right now."
The Lobos' usually explosive offense went cold from the field for the remainder of Monday night. UNM shot just 40% (25-62) from the field — including 4-19 from three — and consistently failed to match stride with Auburn’s up-tempo offense. UNM fell in the opening round of the tournament and trailed by as many as 31 points in the second half.
"(Auburn is) a magnificent basketball team, by far the best we’ve seen this year," Weir said. "It was definitely a jump up as far as what we had to go against. We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board and improve and take it as a great learning experience."
And that they did.
UNM’s consolation matchup with the University of Wisconsin marked their second consecutive game against a team recording votes in the national Associated Press Top 25 poll: Auburn had 488 votes for their 18th-ranked spot, and Wisconsin garnered four.
Wisconsin’s deliberate approach worked to the Lobos' advantage. Wisconsin entered the game ranked 325th in the nation in tempo, where UNM ranked in the nation’s top 20 teams. Rather than pushing the pace, Weir had his squad beat Wisconsin at their own game — patience.
The new approach worked for New Mexico as they forced 14 turnovers and held Wisconsin to six assists. UNM’s poor passing seen in Monday night’s game was remedied Tuesday, as the Lobos recorded just 13 turnovers against Wisconsin after committing a season-high 24 the night prior.
UNM led the game for 32 of the game’s 40 minutes while holding Wisconsin to 34% shooting, including just 2-of-26 (7.7%) from behind the arc. The Badgers were able to cut the lead to three with five minutes remaining, but UNM finished strongly on an 11-5 run.
Led by a healthier-looking JaQuan Lyle’s 14 points and nine rebounds, the Lobo offense again struggled from the field (shooting just 44%) but saw four players reach double digits by the end of the night.
"The thing coach kept telling us was to bounce back (from the loss against Auburn)," junior guard JJ Caldwell said. "No matter what, it’s just the next game. That was our mentality going into this game, and you could probably see it on the defensive end."
Tuesday night’s win was a statement victory, both for Weir and his highly-touted Lobo team. Securing a Power 5 win in a nationally televised game is no small task for smaller programs like UNM — which hadn’t done so since beating the Pac-12’s University of Southern California in 2012.
"I think every year that goes by the Power 5’s resources and support for the athletic departments only grows and grows, and I think us non-Power 5’s kind of take on a 'David and Goliath,' so to speak," Weir said.
The past four games have widely been considered UNM’s toughest stretch of the entire season, and finishing the road trip 2-2 appears to be a sign of good things to come for the Lobos.
"We’re so far from our ceiling," new transfer guard Zane Martin said. "We’ve got a lot of talented guys. A lot of good guys. I feel like personally, we’re only about thirty percent out of one hundred. There’s so much we can accomplish with this unit."
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe