The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team (8-2, 1-0 MWC) triumphed 80-78 Wednesday night against Boise State (4-3, 0-1 MWC), now having recorded a victory in their conference opener for the ninth consecutive season.
Boise State got off to a hot start from the field, shooting 9-for-11 in the game’s opening minutes, including an opening 8-0 run. For much of the first half, UNM played catch-up, managing just 24 seconds with the lead in the first half.
After Boise’s quick start, UNM regained composure and the remainder of the first half saw a back-and-forth battle, with neither team able to take command. Senior guard JaQuan Lyle came out firing, leading the Lobos with 16 points in the first half and locking stride with senior Boise guard Justinian Jessup, who also recorded 16 points in the opening frame.
"(My teammates) put the ball in my hands and trust me to make the right plays ... Every time I step on the court, whoever’s in front of me, I don't think they can guard me," Lyle said after the game.
At the 20-minute mark, both teams went into the locker room locked in a 39-39 tie.
The second half was more of the same, as neither UNM or BSU could pull away. Lobo senior Carlton Bragg was a relative non-factor in the first half but came alive when it counted, finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds and maintaining his place among the conference's rebounding leaders.
The second half saw 15 lead changes and seven ties. Junior guard and potential NBA hopeful Derrick Alston contributed 15 second-half points for BSU to round out a 20 point, six assist night while Jessup stayed hot from beyond the arc, finishing with a season-high 24 points that included 6-for-10 shooting from deep.
A major turning point came with five minutes left in the game, when a double-technical foul was called on Bragg and BSU's RJ Williams. Bragg sank both free throws, giving UNM a 70-68 lead, while Williams was ejected.
Both teams continued trading free throws and field goals. A Bragg layup with 34 seconds remaining gave UNM the lead for good, assisted by junior guard and Mountain West assists leader JJ Caldwell.
"(Caldwell) keeps us all balanced," Lyle said after the game. "He never looks rattled."
Boise had multiple attempts to take the lead in the game’s waning seconds, but Jessup’s contested desperation three at the final buzzer hit the side of the backboard and UNM walked away with a 80-78 victory.
Boise’s offense thrived from three point territory Wednesday night, finishing 14-for-28 where UNM converted just three of its 14 (21.4%) attempts from distance. UNM’s three-point defense has been a point of concern this season, but head coach Paul Weir mentioned that the Lobos’ perimeter defense improved throughout the game.
"I thought we were much more attentive (to the perimeter) as the game went on ... They missed one when it counted, that’s all I know," Weir said. "That ended up kind of sealing the deal for us."
Lyle finished strong, tying his season-high with 31 points while adding six assists, continuing a hot start to his first season since returning from two years of being sidelined with injury.
"I know (Lyle has) only had this one year ... But I think he’s going to be one of the greats here (at UNM)," Weir said.
With the win, UNM improves to 8-2, good enough for Weir’s best 10-game start with UNM and his best overall start since 2016-17. That season, his New Mexico State team started 8-2 en route to a 28-6 season and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Looking forward, Boise State takes on Colorado State at home Saturday afternoon, while the Lobos travel to Wyoming on Saturday to continue their conference schedule.
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe