The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team stayed undefeated at home after narrowly beating Montana State University 81-78 on Saturday at The Pit. The team now stands at 3-1 overall.
This season’s leading scorer Jaelen House got in foul trouble early in the first half, restricting his minutes. UNM stayed in control until a 1-3-1 zone defense from Montana State disrupted their offensive flow; zones like that have so far tended to disrupt the UNM guards’ common tendency to count on the cross-court pass to be a pressure release.
The second half was intense and, at moments, The Pit crowd began to bellow in one voice, like when a tough call was made on House late in the second half. There’s a new interactive relationship between the crowd; head coach Richard Pitino was, at one point, physically gesturing at the crowd to get louder to take advantage of the momentum that The Pit crowd can provide for the players.
“I knew it’d be hard (to beat this veteran team), I really did, and I’m appreciative of the fans; they were terrific. This is a tough place to play (for opponents) when it’s rolling,” Pitino said.
House limped off the court late in the second half after diving for a loose ball and was unable to return for the rest of the game. After the game, Pitino said he was hopeful that it was just a sprained ankle.
Pitino played a smaller lineup than he had in previous home games, surrounding forward Gethro Muscadin with guards Jamal Mashburn Jr., Javonté Johnson, Taryn Todd and K.J. Jenkins when House was out. UNM won the battle on the boards 33-32, making this the first time this season that they out-rebounded their opponent.
The improved spacing from the four-guard lineup gave Muscadin more room around the basket, and the Lobos fed him consistently. Muscadin had his best game of the season; the big man scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and added three steals and three blocks on defense. Muscadin had the highest usage percentage, a statistic that estimates the percentage of plays that a team used a player.
Muscadin is at his best right now when he’s shooting short jumpers, diving to the basket and grabbing offensive rebounds. He still struggles when asked to generate shots in the post and he has a tendency to over-dribble, but his better-than-average passing skill as a big means that if he takes his time after catching and keeps his head up, the Lobos should be able to run actions around him that he can thrive off of. After the game, Muscadin said he likes having the guards around him cut off of him.
“You can see that as soon as I catch on the block they cut, we work on that, and they know that I’m a really good passer too,” Muscadin said.
Mashburn led the Lobos in scoring with 21 points. He shot 62% from the field and destroyed Montana State’s coverage with long 2-point shots and drives to the rim. He said the smaller lineups have made the Lobos’ pace faster.
Jenkins scored 17 points and shot 4-5 from three off of some designed plays to free him up. While Jenkins is a high efficiency offensive player who can help fill in for House, this game was the lowest that UNM has scored off of fast-breaks this season, and the Lobos will miss House’s speed in the open court and his ability to almost single handedly generate fast breaks with steals if he misses any other games from his injury.
UNM plays home next on Monday, Nov. 22 against Western New Mexico University before going away to the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, which starts on Nov. 25.
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy