The freefall continues for men's basketball.
The team has now lost seven of its last nine games after a nailbiter at home against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (13-14, 8-6 MWC). One of the nation's top free-throw shooting teams, UNM (17-10, 6-8 MWC) missed 7 of its final 11 shots from the charity stripe as the game slipped away.
"It seemed like we just ran out of a little bit of gas," UNM head coach Paul Weir said."“We didn't seem to play with a ton of just energy tonight, to begin with ... it was probably the first time we felt just flat in a while."
Despite a night when UNM put up nearly as many turnovers (13) as assists (15), they still had a chance in the game's closing seconds.
Down three with 12 seconds remaining, the Pit crowd — nearly 12,000 strong — anticipated UNM to hold for the last shot after a timeout. Zane Martin's rushed pull-up three with seconds remaining clanked off the rim, icing the game.
"I had the defender on his heels — we were down by three," Martin said after the game. "I felt like that was the best shot possible."
UNLV sophomore Bryce Hamilton secured the ensuing rebound, capping off a 78-73 win and a team-best 17-point night with a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach.
UNM's lead scorer for the season, JaQuan Lyle, didn’t score a single point after the game’s first 15 seconds — his third lackluster outing in as many games since returning from last month's suspension.
After committing a turnover with just over 16 minutes to go, Lyle was subbed out to a raucous cheer from a crowd seemingly glad to see its struggling star head to the bench.
"I just suck right now," Lyle said. "I'm not making any shots. I'm not helping my teammates in any way ... the shots just aren't falling right now. I just have to be better."
The Lobos' late-season struggles tell a tale heard by fans all season: UNM sorely lacks a facilitator.
Of UNM's offensive woes, Weir said he thinks "just not having a point guard — a true one — that can just kind of get us to where we want to get to" has hindered the control the team enjoyed early in the season.
With point guard JJ Caldwell — who led the league in assists at the time of his indefinite suspension — unlikely to return, the derailed UNM basketball train seemed directionless without a conductor.
"I'd rather go through the tough times now than in March," Martin said after the game, referencing the Mountain West Conference tournament in three weeks.
With the loss, the Lobos sit one game ahead of eighth-place Fresno State in the Mountain West. While UNM would hold the tiebreaker in the event of the teams finishing with the same conference record, UNM still has Utah State, Nevada and Boise State to play before the MWC tournament begins with all three locked in a tight race for second place in the conference.
If UNM were to fall to the eighth seed, they would automatically face undefeated San Diego State in the second round of the conference tournament, assuming that a deflated Lobos squad advances past the first round.
On Tuesday, Feb, 18, the Lobos take on Nevada at home as they attempt to steady the course of a season which has long gotten away from them.
Joe Rull is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe.