Another game, another slow start and another unconvincing victory for the Lobo men's basketball team on a late night at the Pit on Tuesday, Jan. 7.
A week after a loss to a 4-10 San José State team that derailed an eight-game winning streak, UNM struggled to pull away from the 5-10 Fresno State Bulldogs until late in the second half, eventually securing a 78-64 win in front of an announced crowd of 10,010 that was much closer than the box score would indicate.
Notwithstanding the closer-than-desirable nature of many of UNM's games thus far, the Lobos have run up a perfect 11-0 home start to their 2019-2020 season. That tally is good enough for the best such record at the Pit since near the end of the Ritchie McKay era in 2005-2006 (a 12-0 home streak put to rest by BYU on Feb. 1, 2006).
Senior Carlton Bragg put up a dud in his return from a three-game suspension, going scoreless in his first 13 minutes en route to a 2-point, 7-rebound performance on 1-for-7 shooting.
After yet another back-and-forth first half, the Lobos went into the break with just a 41-37 lead. Uncharacteristically, UNM were also out-rebounded by Fresno State 27-15 in the opening frame.
Bragg’s return was a non-factor for most of the game Tuesday night, as he was outpaced on the boards by three Bulldogs. Freshman Orlando Robinson led Fresno State with 16 points and 12 rebounds, while senior Nate Grimes nearly chipped in a double-double of his own, finishing with 7 points and 9 rebounds in his first action since a wrist injury put him on the bench last month.
"We didn’t know if Grimes was going to play or not ... with Grimes getting on the court, they murdered us on the backboard," UNM head coach Paul Weir said after the game. "Him and Robinson are just a load down there to block out."
For just the fourth time in 17 games on the season, the Lobos were out-rebounded by their opponent as Fresno State commanded the glass by a 44-34 margin, including a 17-7 offensive rebounding advantage.
Senior Vance Jackson kept the Lobos alive in the opening half, posting a season-high 17 first-half points and securing his fifth consecutive game in double figures after starting the season with just two such performances in the first 12 games.
Guard JaQuan Lyle turned in his first double-double against a Division I opponent of the season, finishing with 14 points and 10 assists. With the ongoing suspension of point guard JJ Caldwell, Lyle has assumed the majority of UNM’s ball handling responsibilities.
On top of UNM’s recent suspension woes, the Lobos were also missing two key role players in sophomores Keith McGee, who was dealing with a family tragedy, and Tavian Percy, who was ruled out just minutes before Tuesday night’s game with an illness.
"Unfortunately, we were short a couple of guys tonight," Weir said. "We have guys playing new positions and we’re juggling some different rosters, but thankfully our veterans — our guys, JaQuan and Vance — those guys were kind of able to carry the load for us today."
On the night, Lyle and Jackson linked up for 6 of Lyle’s game-high 10 assists.
"JaQuan’s kind of our point guard (now after the roster changes), so a lot of it is going to be on him," said Weir. "I thought he did a great job of finding Vance tonight."
Led by Jackson’s season-best 29-point, 13-rebound outing, four Lobos scored at least 10 points as UNM eventually managed to pull away deep into the second half. Jackson’s second double-double of the season also marked his second consecutive 20-point game.
While the Bulldogs managed to keep the contest within single digits for the majority of the second half, Jackson’s uber-efficient shooting (9-for-12 field goals, 6-for-7 on threes) helped put Fresno away after a 9-0 run with three minutes to go.
Over the past two games, Jackson is averaging an impressive 27 points and 13 rebounds. He credited his unwavering confidence for his ability to bounce back from early-season shooting struggles.
"I’ve been the same player since the first game of the season, even when I wasn’t making shots," Jackson said after the game. "I could miss eight shots in a row, but I’m still going to shoot that ninth one like I had just made eight in a row."
Back in Fresno on Jan. 14, the Bulldogs will take on undefeated, 7th-ranked San Diego State. With the win, UNM improves to 14-3 (3-1 MWC) on the season, and looks onward to Air Force at home on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 4 p.m.
Air Force spent Tuesday night dismantling fellow Mountain West contender Utah State, improving to 8-8 (2-2 MWC). As teams jostle for position early in conference play, the UNM-Air Force matchup could have significant implications come the postseason.
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe