Stepping off the bus into enemy territory never felt so good.
A few hours before the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team tipped off its game against Dixie State on Wednesday, the Lobos pulled up to Burns Arena in St. George, Utah, and were pleasantly surprised.
“I never knew but, like, Dixie State’s school’s in session,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “You get off the bus and there’s kids walking around in backpacks and they’re going to school and they’ve got signs outside about the game [Wednesday night].”
In many ways, Weir said, it was as if the Lobos were playing their first real game of the season. A limited crowd was allowed in, including a student section that heckled the visitors and made noise the entire time.
In that atmosphere, the Lobos (4-6 overall) finally ended their six-game losing streak with a 72-63 win over Dixie State (4-3). In that environment, they finally got to experience the energy of a game played before fans.
In that place, they finally got the change of scenery they so desperately needed.
“Just getting in our groove, you know?” said UNM guard Saquan Singleton, whose 17 points were a career high and whose stat line included four blocked shots, half a dozen rebounds and a team-high four assists. “We didn’t really show that much in the last few games so, like I said, we needed this game right here.”
Like most Lobos games in this season of endless travel and heaping helpings of homesickness, it wasn’t easy. They trailed by as many as eight points in the first half before bouncing back to take a 27-26 lead at the midway point.
After that, it was all about the defense as the Trailblazers, a first-year Division I program that was in the same Division II league as New Mexico Highlands last season, struggled with UNM’s athleticism. They scored just two points over a seven-minute span of the second half as the Lobos opened a 15-point cushion.
The outcome was never in doubt over the final 15 minutes as UNM did just enough of everything to get its first win since beating Division III LeTourneau on Dec. 17.
True to his word, Weir narrowed his team’s depth chart. Minus departed senior Keith McGee, he only used nine players in Wednesday’s game as regulars Kurt Wegscheider and Emmanuel Kuac never got off the bench.
“We’ve had a rough couple of two weeks and we needed this tonight,” said Makuach Maluach, the team’s lone remaining senior.
The Lobos added Wednesday’s game earlier this week for a few reasons. For one, Weir said, he didn’t want his players and coaches moping around after getting drilled six straight games in Mountain West play, nor did he want them dreading a return trip to Texas to get in extra practice before Saturday’s series opener at UNLV.
UNM has spent much of its time since Thanksgiving week in the Lone Star state, namely the Lubbock area. After a quick trip to Albuquerque last weekend, the team considered going back to the Panhandle or trying to find a place in Las Vegas, Nev., to get in some extra work.
When Dixie State, a first-year member of the Western Athletic Conference, offered a game in front of fans, Weir was more than willing to play. Any shot at normalcy was worth the impromptu trip into Utah.
“To kind of have that slice of hope, to be a part of this, this is what everyone came to college basketball to do,” Weir said. “You came to be a part of a game like this. So the outcome’s obviously great, but I would also say just the experience today of playing our first college basketball game with fans in the stands and people saying stuff to you and student sections screaming at me, screaming at you when you’re on the free throw line and all those other things — that’s why these kids signed up.”
The team will stay in St. George on Thursday to take advantage of the school’s weight room and facilities. The Lobos will get in at least one practice before heading to Vegas. … Marin’s career night saw him foul out in just 15 minutes. … UNM big men Bayron Matos, Rod Brown and Valdir Manuel had eight points apiece and combined for 21 rebounds, a vast improvement in recent blowout losses to Utah State, Nevada and Boise State.