ALBUQUERQUE — The question as to how the Lobos would do with JaQuan Lyle playing limited minutes was answered Saturday afternoon in The Pit.
Ehhhh … they did OK, kinda. Right?
The University of New Mexico won, beating visiting Air Force 84-78 in a game that was separated by a single possession until the final 45 seconds. The Lobos, 15-3 overall and 4-1 in the Mountain West, improved to 12-0 at home and remained in a second-place tie with UNLV behind San Diego State atop the conference.
The lesson learned? That winning is possible even if Lyle is not on the court.
The senior, who came in averaging 17.2 points and a team-high 35.1 minutes per game, had three fouls at halftime. He picked up his fourth at the 14:42 mark of the second half and fouled out with just under four minutes to go. Three of his fouls came at the offensive end when an Air Force defender would undercut his dribble penetration and create contact that went against him.
While he did manage to score a team-high 20 points and even throw down a rare dunk — “I don’t really have no words for that; I kind of like surprised myself,” Lyle admitted later — his 28 minutes were the fewest he’s had since logging a season-low 25 on Nov. 25 against Auburn.
“In a weird way, I’m kind of happy that it happened,” said head coach Paul Weir. “It forced everyone else to realize life does go on a little bit.”
One of the key contributors to Life Without JaQuan was Zane Martin, a player diagnosed with asthma shortly after transferring to UNM and the rarefied air of the mile-high desert air of the Southwest. Forced into the starting lineup thanks to a sudden shortage of available guards, Martin scored 18 points with a team-high five assists and three of the team’s 10 blocked shots.
The Lobos once again were without the services of suspended point guard JJ Caldwell — out for the fifth straight game — and backup Keith McGee, who missed the last two games thanks to a death in the family and then a disciplinary action for not showing up on time to an unspecified team event.
That left Martin and Lyle alone in the backcourt. When Lyle went out, it was a moment of apprehension for a Lobos team that started the season with five solid candidates (including the since-transferred Drue Drinnon) at the point.
At one point late in the second half, Martin actually motioned to the bench that he needed a sub after feeling the burn in his lungs from the constant strain of carrying the load.
“Sometimes in The Pit my chest gets real tight, that’s all that was,” Martin said.
“He asked for a sub and the reality was he wasn’t getting subbed, so I think we all just pretended not to hear him,” Weir said. “Unfortunately it caught him a little bit there and he rallied from that point.”
Not a natural point guard, Martin said he has had to teach himself to be more than a shooting guard and scorer. Running the point requires court vision, knowing where everyone else will be and being a floor general; things he’s not necessarily trained to do.
One of the pivotal moments for him came at the defensive end. With the Lobos nursing a 74-71 lead in the final two minutes, Corey Manigault had the ball stripped to start an Air Force fastbreak the other way. Martin chased down Caleb Morris and rejected his layup attempt, then Lavelle Scottie’s offensive rebound and put-back was rejected by Manigault.
Just 44 seconds later, Martin took a Carlton Bragg steal, dribbled down court and tossed a highlight-reel alley oop to a soaring Makuach Maluach to open a five-point margin.
Manigault finished with 16 points and had three blocks while Bragg shook off the rust and scored all 11 of his points in the game’s final 15 minutes, finishing with seven rebounds and three blocks of his own.
Off to their best home start ever since joining the MWC, the Lobos hit the road for the next week with visits to Colorado State and UNLV before coming home on Jan. 21 to face San Jose State.
Lyle said the lesson learned for him after dealing with fouls for the first time as a Lobo is really pretty simple. Seated next to assistant coach Craig Snow during his extended foray on the bench, he discovered what it’s like to be a cheerleader, a spectator and a de facto coach.
“It’s kinda cool, just sitting back and looking onto it, kind of nerve-wracking,” Lyle said. “I knew there was nothing I could do so the biggest thing for me was just try to be there for my teammates, encourage my teammates and, hopefully, encourage them to get the win — and that’s what we did.”
The Lobos had 20 turnovers, the fourth time this season they’ve had at least that many. … Air Force had 16 turnovers, had 10 shots blocked and shot just 8-for-28 from 3-point range, prompting Weir to say it was his team’s best overall defensive effort since an Nov. 26 win over Wisconsin. … The Lobos led by as many as 12 in the second half and trailed for just 5:17 the entire game. … Vance Jackson’s offensive rebirth came crashing back to earth Saturday. He had just five points, hitting 2-of-8 shots with two rebounds in 24 minutes. He had scored 54 points in his previous two games.