Paul Weir is no astrologist, but it appears all the stars are aligning just right for his University of New Mexico men’s basketball team.
The Lobos (18-14) got a career-high 23 points from senior Joe Furstinger and 15 points from Troy Simons in an 85-75 win over Wyoming in Thursday night’s late quarterfinal of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev.
The victory not only gives UNM its highest win total in four years, but it snapped a three-year losing streak in the tournament and sends the third-seeded Lobos into Friday night’s semifinals against No. 7 Utah State.
The Aggies stunned No. 2 Boise State in an earlier quarterfinal at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNM and Utah State split their regular season matchups.
“This will be Utah State’s third game in three days,” Weir said. “We have to crank it up even more; even more pressure, even more running, even more 3s. That’s why we’ve always done what we’ve done, you know — for these moments.”
The Lobos never trailed in Thursday’s game, opening a 13-point cushion early in the first half and holding on for dear life after the Cowboys (20-13) made it a one-possession game in the second half.
UNM forced 12 turnovers and outscored Wyoming 12-3 on miscues, but the bigger issue was the work New Mexico did on star players Justin James and Hayden Dalton. James was held to nine points on a miserable 3-for-15 shooting night. He was off on all five of his attempts from the 3-point range, while Dalton had 12 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
James was hobbled for the final eight-plus minutes of the game after he and Lobos guard Anthony Mathis banged knees when Mathis attempted to drive the ball around him in the corner.
The Cowboys kept the game close, eventually getting with 74-71 on a Dalton jumper with 4:48 remaining, but a three-point play by Furstinger two minutes later ignited an 8-0 run that put the game out of reach.
Furstinger’s previous high was 22 points against Colorado State.
“I just didn’t want this to be my last college game,” he said.
With the majority of the fans in attendance wearing Lobo red and trying their best to make a difference in the game, Furstinger was asked about the good ol’ days when UNLV’s arena was once affectionately referred to as “The Pit West.” For a time on Thursday, that’s how it felt.
“I still talk to the all the old guys like Alex Kirk, Cam [Bairstow], Hugh [Greenwood] and they said it was, like, crazy when they was winning out here,” Furstinger said.
Just two wins away from a MWC championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, Weir was asked about the pressure of playing well in the postseason.
“I haven’t felt any pressure for the last month,” he said. “You know, every time [Lobo super fan] Snake comes to practice or whatever, he keeps telling me we’re playing with house money. I don’t know whether I’m in Vegas and how appropriate that is to say with gambling rules and everything, but we have no pressure. That’s the beautiful part of it. We were 3-8. Part of the reason I said let’s worry for three games in March is because you can’t really say much else in the middle of November when things aren’t going well.”
The tournament’s other semifinal has regular season champion and nationally ranked Nevada facing the hottest team in the league, San Diego State. The Aztecs won their seventh straight game Thursday by beating No. 4 Fresno State while Nevada escaped the upset by UNLV with a five-point win.
At this point it’s a given that Nevada will be part of the NCAA Tournament, regardless of what happens this weekend. What is certain is Boise State likely played itself out of a trip to the dance with Thursday’s loss, and the three teams not named Nevada that are still playing could steal a tournament bid by winning out.
Weir said he thought the Lobos’ best probability of success when the season started was to run a style that increased their durability and made them stronger at the end of the year when other teams were starting to break down and get fatigued.
“I thought by March, if we stuck together and we did what we needed to do, other teams would decrease enough, we could catch them,” Weir said. “I don’t think we can beat a lot of these teams that we’ve beat lately; I don’t think we could have beat them in November. I don’t think we could have beat San Diego State, I don’t think we could have beat UNLV. But by March, the seasons are long enough that those teams maybe can chip away a little bit and maybe have some chinks in their armor.”
Tipoff for Friday’s game is 9:30 p.m.
The Lobos scored 30 points in the final three minutes of their last meeting with Wyoming, a game in which they scored 119 points to establish a school record for most points in a road game. … Mathis saw his 18-game streak of double digit scoring come to an end. He was 2-for-7 shooting and missed two free throws, finishing with eight points. … Eight of the nine Lobos who played, scored. The exception was Vlad Pinchuk, who played just three minutes and didn’t attempt a shot. … The Lobos had 19 assists to just seven turnovers. Mathis and Jackson each had four assists. … The UNM bench outscored Wyoming’s, 47-17. … New Mexico leads the MWC by averaging more than 11 3-pointers a game. The Lobos had just seven in Thursday’s game.