THE PIT — If ever the Lobos men’s basketball team needed a morale-boosting win, Tuesday night’s home tilt against San José State was it.
After consecutive crushing, nationally-televised defeats at Colorado State (a 33-point loss) and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (a 21-point loss) following star center Carlton Bragg's removal and amidst a pending lawsuit against the University of New Mexico by suspended point guard JJ Caldwell, head coach Paul Weir’s team looked to be in a midseason tailspin.
Add to the mix injuries sidelining lead guards JaQuan Lyle and Vance Jackson, and Tuesday night’s matchup against San José — who handed UNM their first conference loss of the season on New Year’s Day — could have spelled disaster for a Lobos team which hasn’t been able to get out of its own way of late.
So how did they respond, down four starters and with their undefeated home record at stake? With an assertive 86-59 victory in what may very well have been the team’s best two-way performance all season.
The game’s first four possessions shed light on what was to come before a reported crowd of 10,016 at the Pit. UNM’s customary slow start was thrown by the wayside, with the Lobos scoring on their first two trips on the offensive end while forcing two turnovers in the opening moments.
UNM’s alternating defensive looks swarmed Spartan ball handlers all night, giving up a season-best 27% (17-for-63) shooting while forcing 14 turnovers.
SJSU’s Richard Washington, author of the Spartans' late-game heroics in their Jan. 1 upset of UNM in California, was held to just 3 points on the night, while just one Spartan reached double figures: Seneca Knight with 11 points.
After a two-game skid wherein UNM was out-rebounded by a margin of 14 boards in each contest, the Lobos were able to pull even with SJSU in the rebounding column (37-36), a goal Weir made sure to emphasize going into Tuesday night’s matchup.
"I told them if we get even on the glass (with) less than 12 turnovers, I’d thought we’d put ourselves in a really good position to win the game," Weir said. "I thought tonight the guys were excellent — (they) followed the game plan to a T."
In the absence of Lyle and Jackson — both out due to similar knee injuries — it was transfer guard Zane Martin who once again filled in as the team’s lead guard, recording 20 points and 4 assists on the night.
"Zane has kind of reluctantly taken on the point guard position most of the year," Weir said. "He’s a scorer: He likes scoring, he’s good at it, but he’s also our next best point guard right now."
Martin averaged 16.3 points per game over his last four games, all while starting in a lead guard role.
"I took it upon myself to lead," said Martin. "I feel like coaches depend on me as the point guard to lead the team in the right direction. I’m also seasoned — I’m a transfer, you know, after two years, so I feel like I’ve pretty much seen a lot of stuff that I can help my teammates with."
Forwards Corey Manigault and Makuach Maluach also turned in some of their best performances of the season, with the former posting 21 points and 9 rebounds on 8-for-13 shooting and the latter putting up 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for his first double-double of the season and just the second of his career.
Lost in the madness of a tumultuous month for the Lobos has been Maluach’s consistent presence. On Tuesday night, UNM took the floor without four of its five opening-day starters.
Maluach, the only starter remaining, made his 44th consecutive start for UNM against San José.
Starting alongside fresh faces in guards Vante Hendrix, who played 30 minutes for just the second time all year, and Tavian Percy, who got his first starting nod of the season Tuesday and played a career-best 27 minutes, Maluach noted how important it was for UNM's role players to step up to the plate.
"If guys are down, some guys have got to step up, and I think they did a great job tonight," Maluach said. "If you get an opportunity, you’d better go out there and take advantage of it."
With the win, UNM improved to 16-5 on the season. Despite the recent uncertainty clouding the program, the Lobos are still clinging to a 13-0 record at home, its best start during the Mountain West era.
"I know there's a lot going on with our team and a lot that's been said about our team," Weir said, "but that's something you can't take away from these guys. I'm really happy for them ... and I'm really happy for our fans because that’s who we do it for."
UNM next plays Nevada in Reno on Saturday, Jan. 25. The Lobos hope to be joined by Lyle and Jackson, whose injuries Weir mentioned were not serious or long-term. Additionally, UNM’s top 2020 recruit in forward Bayron Matos has committed to joining the team for the spring semester in the wake of Bragg’s dismissal from the team, which — if all goes according to plan — should take place in the coming weeks.
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @rulljoe