ALBUQUERQUE — Hello, defense.
After giving up too many easy buckets and way too many points in their season opener earlier this week, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team cranked it up a notch in the first 30-or-so minutes of Saturday night’s 97-70 win over Cal State-Northridge in The Pit.
The Matadors’ point total may have equaled that of Eastern New Mexico’s in the opener, but the play of his team’s defense is what sent Lobos head coach Paul Weir back to the locker room with a smile on his face.
“It was a step for sure, defensively,” he said. “Probably a bigger one than maybe I had anticipated because this was a good team.”
CSUN’s roster included familiar surnames like Artest, Harrick and Ou; the first two being the sons, respectively, of a former NBA star and a UCLA championship coach; the last being a product of Albuquerque’s Menaul School. Despite all that the Matadors were held to 36 percent shooting in the first half as the Lobos led for all but three minutes the entire night.
It wasn’t until the final portion of the second half that Northridge started hitting shots with regularity. By then UNM had opened the revolving door of substitutes, allowing anyone and everyone to get into the game.
Now 2-0 on the young season, UNM turns its attention to a pair of home games next week in the Legends Classic, a four-game tournament that ends with a trip to New York the week of Thanksgiving.
“It’s crazy; it’s not as much about winning and losing as much as it is just trusting our process and continuing to grow,” Weir said.
That may be true to a degree, but make no mistake: The Lobos are only happy when they win. On Saturday night, pretty much everyone was happy. Five players finished in double figures, led by 18 points from JaQuan Lyle and 17 apiece from big men Carlton Bragg and Corey Manigault.
Manigault played only 15 minutes to reach his point total. After two games, he is proving to be a truly efficient player on offense. He has scored 30 points on a mere 17 shots in just 35 minutes. He’s shooting 70.5 percent from the field.
For a player who ran into some off-court trouble in the preseason and then spent several weeks trying to win back the trust of the coaching staff, it’s about as good of a start as can be hoped for. He said he credits the approach in practice, a place where the team’s competitive fire shines through.
“We split up the teams and you wouldn’t even think we was on the same team,” he said. “We go so crazy at each other.”
The Lobos were in control of Saturday’s game from the middle of the first half onwards when they used a 15-4 run to open a 43-32 lead at halftime. Northridge’s only field goal in that 8-plus minute span came on a 3-pointer with five seconds left.
Lyle echoed Manigault when trying to find an answer for the Lobos’ approach on game nights.
“We compete, we’re finally able to beat up on somebody else,” he said. “We haven’t had that. Like, I haven’t had that in two years, a lot of us haven’t had that in so long.”
If there was a troubling aspect of this one it was another sluggish outing for Vance Jackson. He had a quiet six-point game on just half a dozen shots in the opener. He had just six more on only three shots Saturday.
That means he’s averaging just one shot attempt for every four minutes he’s been on the floor, a far cry from the player he was at the end of last season when it appeared as though he were one of the top players in the Mountain West Conference.
“You gotta search yourself, you got to come in every day and, know what I’m saying, show yourself, show that you’re working,” Lyle said. “Search yourself in the game. You get touches and, I mean, what you do with it that’s on you. Pass it, that’s on you. If you shoot it, that’s on you.”
Jackson had more fouls (three) than points (two) until a late surge in the second half.
Other than that, though, not a bad night for Weir and his team. Moving forward, he said, it’s reasonable to assume the defense will continue to evolve and show more wrinkles — like the full-court press they’d been working on for most of the offseason but barely shown in the first two games.
“I do think, defensively, these guys are hopefully buying into the idea that that’s what going to kind of carry us,” he said. “We have very gifted offensive players, we know that. I think the other team knows that. I think our players know that. It’s just going to be a question of how committed to defense can we get and when we can I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
The Lobos shot 60 percent from the field (36-for-60), the exact same figure (33-for-55) as in the opener. … Saturday’s attendance was 10,335, up nearly 800 from the opener. … Zane Martin had 13 points and Keith McGee 10 off the bench. Makuach Maluach had a game-high eight rebounds. … The Lobos outscored CSUN 56-24 in the paint and 26-7 off turnovers.