LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — A true tale of two halves, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball 2019-2020 season came to an end in the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West Championship tournament on March 5.
After a promising 15-3 start, the Lobos (19-14, 7-11) stumbled to the finish line, entering the tournament on a 3-10 skid.
UNM’s lackluster mark in conference regular-season play was good enough for the seventh seed in the 11-team tournament. The seeding drew UNM a play-in round matchup against San Jose State, with whom the Lobos split their two regular-season games.
Led by strong outings by juniors Vance Jackson (26 points, 12 rebounds) and Makuach Maluach, UNM coasted to an opening 79-66 victory in front of the Lobo faithful who make the yearly trip to the conference tournament.
Having made last year’s all-tournament team, Jackson’s stellar performance drew new praise and reinforced his “Vegas Vance” moniker, which he welcomed.
“I do like that name,” Jackson said, with a grin.
Despite 21 turnovers, UNM managed to keep the Spartan’s comeback attempts at bay thanks in large part to a late surge by Maluach, who went toe-to-toe with SJSU’s Seneca Knight in the final minutes. Both finished the night with 22 points.
The victory set up a rematch with Utah State (24-8), who UNM beat last Saturday, Feb. 29, on senior night in the Pit. Unfortunately for the Lobos, “Vegas Vance” and company got deja vu — just not the kind they were looking for.
For the second year in a row, UNM faced a Utah State squad — the Goliath to the Lobos’ David — in a #2-#7 quarterfinal matchup. And, for the second year in a row, UNM’s season ended on a blown second-half lead.
After falling quickly behind to the tune of an opening 18-5 Aggie run, senior guard JaQuan Lyle scored 16 of his 20 points during a six-minute period in the first half, single-handedly willing UNM’s season hopes back to life in what would ultimately prove to be his collegiate curtain call.
During the second half, the ever-streaky Lobos proved to be just that. An 11-point UNM lead was erased by a late outburst from senior star Sam Merrill. UNM’s faulty defense had no answer for Merrill as he turned in his game-high 29 points during a five-minute period late in the second half.
“We kind of went back and forth there between man and zone there late to stop Merrill,” Weir said after the game. “I couldn’t coach us well enough to (get) us to a victory. These guys played their hearts out. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t create enough defensive stops down the stretch for us to get the victory.”
As has been the case for much of the season, the Lobos’ woes from beyond the arc hamstrung their attempt to stay in the game. Vegas Vance cooled off considerably after his impressive start, shooting just 4-15 from the field, including 2-11 from distance and headlining the team’s 8-31 three-point shooting performance.
Jackson’s future with UNM is uncertain. He may test the NBA Draft waters this offseason as he did last year, or alternatively may consider transferring to another school akin to the move made by now-Oregon senior guard Anthony Mathis, who played for UNM for three years and led the 2018-19 Lobos in scoring before transferring ahead of this season.
Jackson’s isn’t the only future left undecided, however.
Just hours before the game, key rotation guard Vante Hendrix was sent back to Albuquerque for what appeared to be disciplinary reasons, though head coach Paul Weir declined to specify after the game exactly what the sophomore guard did.
“Nothing substantial,” Weir said. “Our focus was on us trying to win this game. I didn’t feel his focus was there so I sent him home.”
Replying to an Albuquerque Journal report on Twitter noting that no official reason for Hendrix’s departure was released, Hendrix said he was “waiting to hear what [he] did, too.”
As of now, the Utah transfer’s future is “to be determined,” according to Weir.
Weir’s own future with the team is safe — for now. UNM athletic officials have confirmed plans to continue with Weir at the helm, though a third straight disappointing season has Weir in a hotter-than-anticipated seat. In his three years with UNM, Weir’s record sits at 52-47, with just two postseason victories and no appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
In many ways, this was a fitting end to the Lobos’ 2019-2020 escapade.
An up-and-down affair with flashes of UNM’s preseason promise was marred with off-court drama, uncertainty and, ultimately, disappointment.
“We had it in our hands,” Jackson said.“We just didn’t finish and pull through. Any loss hurts, but this hurts the most because the season is over.”
Joe Rull is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe