Make it five in a row.
Taking the court for the first time in 10 days, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team was dropped 79-70 by Nevada in the coronavirus-delayed Mountain West Conference opener for both teams on Saturday night in Reno, Nev.
It was UNM’s fifth straight loss to former Lobos coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal. In his third season as Nevada’s head coach, Alford has won four of those games by at least 10 points.
He got No. 5 by having his Wolf Pack (7-5, 1-0) force turnovers and generate offense in the transition. The Lobos (7-7, 0-1) committed 17 miscues, their second-highest single game total all season. Of those, 10 turnovers came in the second half when Nevada turned a close game at halftime into a 19-point cushion.
“Live ball turnovers,” said UNM coach Richard Pitino. “When we were set in the half court, we were fine defensively, but those live-ball turnovers killed us and they’re really good on the break.”
The Lobos got an early spark from senior Saquan Singleton. The guard got his first start of the season in place of Taryn Todd, and he came through, finishing with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting with three assists and four rebounds.
He did battle foul trouble, sitting for long stretches of the second half when Nevada began pulling away. The Wolf Pack trailed 36-35 at the break but finished with four players in double figures, led by Desmond Cambridge’s 18 points.
Preseason all-MWC player Grant Sherfield was held to 10 points, going the entire first half without a made basket. He did manage 10 assists and got half of his points from the free throw line as Nevada turned to its other key players to get the game under control.
The killer, Pitino said, was the second half, when turnovers became the direct result of his offense getting disrupted by the Wolf Pack’s more assertive play. He called it a “breakdown in trust” in the second half.
“Just an unwillingness to pass the ball,” he said. “We’ve got to get these guys more answers from an offensive flow standpoint. We run a set and it just stops. It’s not going to work, and when you don’t really have a true post presence you can’t really throw it in there. You gotta have great ball movement, which we do not have right now.”
Ten Lobos got playing time in Saturday’s game. Each of them had at least one turnover.
Nevada opened a 69-50 lead in the final five minutes, but New Mexico used an extended run that got them as close as five in the waning moments. Nevada iced it at the free throw line.
It was also a tough shooting night for UNM guards Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House. The pair combined to miss 23 shots, nine of them from 3-point range.
“If House and Mash are 10-for-33, we’re not going to win a lot of games because they’re a bulk of what we do offensively,” Pitino said. “That would be like Klay Thompson and Steph Curry being off. I mean, right now with our roster we just don’t have a true low post presence. Those two have got to work with each other a little bit better to get each other better shots.”
Saturday’s game was UNM’s first since a Dec. 21 home win over Norfolk State. The Tuesday conference opener against nationally ranked Colorado State was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the CSU program.
The Lobos will have another week off before taking the floor again Saturday against Utah State in The Pit.
The rust for both teams — Nevada had played just three games in December — was readily apparent early on, as both teams struggled to find consistent offense. Mashburn finished with a team-high 18 points and House had 17, but aside from Singleton no other Lobo had more than five points.
That included just one made free throw and three rebounds in 16 minutes from 7-foot freshman Sebastian Forsling. Forsling’s assignment was to try to establish an inside threat at both ends of the floor against Nevada’s equally big but more experienced low-post players.
Emmanuel Kuac grabbed a team-high nine rebounds for the Lobos despite giving up several inches in the post. He finished with three points, banking in a 3-pointer from the top of the key in the second half.
Pitino’s ire had less to do with the personnel on the floor and the general play of his entire roster after a competitive first half saw the teams go back in forth in what was a solid effort from both teams.
“I kept telling them in the second half, like, ‘You guys know, and I know, we can’t play this way. This is impossible,’ ” Pitino said. “The huddles, we’re not playing together. So I just think it was a lack of belief, and it just spiraled over and over again.”