THE PIT — It was quite the swan song for seniors JaQuan Lyle and Corey Manigault.
Saturday, Feb. 29 marked the University of New Mexico's senior night and the end of Lyle and Manigault's home collegiate careers. A surging Utah State team (23-8, 12-6 MW) came into the game having won nine of its last ten games and clinching second place in the conference. It was only fitting that the tandem took control during the game's waning moments and lifted UNM (18-14, 7-11 MW) to a stunning 14-point comeback, giving the Lobos a 66-64 victory in their final home game of the season.
After entering the half up 33-32, UNM's recent shooting woes once again reared its ugly head. Deep into the second frame, a 16-2 Utah State run turned a tied match into what the 11,000-plus Lobo faithful in attendance feared might become just another game that got away.
At least, that was the case until a barrage of back-to-back-to-back threes from juniors Makuach Maluach, Vance Jackson and Keith McGee brought UNM back within five points with just over ten minutes remaining.
A Jackson drive in transition ended in a hard foul by Aggie guard Abel Porter. After extensive video review, the foul was deemed a flagrant two-foul, immediately ejecting Porter from the contest at the 5:15 mark. Two subsequent Jackson free throws followed by a Manigault basket on the following inbound — fed by one of Lyle’s game-high 10 assists — cut a 6-point Utah State lead down to two.
"There's been several moments with Quan over the course of this year where he wanted to kill several people, and I probably wanted to kill him, but I thought tonight we broached those moments and we were always able to bounce back," UNM head coach Paul Weir said after the game, commending the point guard's poise in light of the Lobos' tumultuous season.
On the other side, without its primary ballhandler in Porter, the Aggie offense stalled and managed just seven points for the rest of the game, opening the door for a late UNM run.
Despite opening the game with seven quick points, Manigault rode the bench for a large chunk of the second half after getting into foul trouble against Neemias Queta, the reigning MWC Defensive Player of the Year.
In his Pit curtain call, Manigault put the Lobos ahead for good, first with an and-1 dunk and once more on the ensuing possession with a steal and transition lay-in, the latter coming with just 21 seconds to play.
"Corey, I was a little worried about him there midway through," Weir said.
He also noted Queta's ability to force former Lobo big man Carlton Bragg to the perimeter in last year's conference tournament, where he seemed "intimidated" by Queta's presence on the interior.
"I thought Corey was doing the same thing until he went in for that last segment and he was finally going to the basket and attacking and just going and not worrying about who he was up against," Weir said.
Asked if this Lobo team could make a run at the conference crown in this week's Mountain West Championships, Manigault gave an emphatic "yes sir."
"It's definitely a feeling," Manigault said. "We know we can do it. Defensive-wise, everybody knows if we lock in on defense, that's just our only problem. We can score on offense -- not a problem. If we lock in on defense, we just saw for ourselves, we can do anything."
Both Manigault (Pittsburgh) and Lyle (Ohio State) transferred to UNM after the 2016-17 season. Hailing from Fairfax, Virginia, Manigault is the Lobos' second-leading rebounder and scorer this season, trailing only Lyle. After sitting out two straight seasons per the NCAA's transfer rules and a subsequent year for a torn Achilles, Lyle led in total points and assists for one of the Mountain West's most productive offensive attacks. On Jan. 1 against San José State, Lyle recorded his 1,000th career point.
With the win, UNM finished the season with a 15-3 record at home, despite underwhelming marks in both conference play (7-11) and overall record (18-14) after starting the season winning 15 of its first 18 games.
"Our guys have just fought through it, and I can't explain how happy I am for them," Weir said.
Saturday night's victory also secured the 7th seed in this week's conference tournament, meaning that the Lobos will take on tenth-seeded San José State (7-23, 3-15 MW) in the tournament's play-in round. If UNM were to beat San José, they'd once again face Utah State in the tournament's quarterfinal round.
The Mountain West Championship tips off on Wednesday, March 4 in Las Vegas, Nevada, with UNM slated to take on the Spartans at 2:30 p.m. With no involvement in other postseason tournaments, the MWC Championship will see the end of the road for this year's Lobos, rain or shine.
Joe Rull is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe