The end of the line is definitely in sight for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team.
It’s just a little further down the road than it appeared to be at the start of the week.
On Monday, the Mountain West Conference ended speculation about a scaled-back postseason tournament by revealing a schedule that has all 11 teams in the four-day bracket that begins March 10 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev. There had been talk the conference might restrict the number of teams due to COVID-19 concerns, but the MWC said the plan was to move forward without fans for the men’s or women’s tournaments.
The women’s tournament begins March 7 and ends with the championship game the night the men’s tournament begins. One of the teams in the thick of the regular season title chase is UNM, an 80-66 winner Tuesday night at Air Force.
The Lobos (10-2 overall and 7-2 MWC) moved into second place with the win. They’ve had eight conference games either delayed, postponed or canceled because of the pandemic.
Their 12 games are, by far, the fewest of any team still playing.
Like the UNM men, the women’s team got a gift from the MWC office Tuesday morning. The league announced a slew of makeup games the week before the conference tournaments, and the Lobos men will have one of their two postponed games against Colorado State scheduled for March 3 in Fort Collins, Colo., while the Lobos women will have their two-game series against Colorado State set for March 3 and March 5 at a site to be determined.
Both are technically home games for the Lobos women, who have yet to play in The Pit due to the state’s ongoing health restrictions on large gatherings. UNM has played two “home games” in Canyon, Texas, while playing all others either at a neutral site or on the road.
The series against CSU was scheduled for earlier this month in Fort Collins, Colo., but was called off after an undisclosed Lobo tested positive for COVID-19. The Lobos went 18 days between games, a span that ended with Tuesday’s win at Air Force.
It’s a game the Lobos trailed 9-0 after the opening tip. The Falcons led 42-34 at halftime but New Mexico blew Air Force’s doors off in the final two quarters, outscoring the Falcons 46-24. Guard LaTascya Duff had 31 points, burying six 3-pointers to go with five steals.
She, Corina Carter, Jaedyn De La Cerda and Antonia Anderson combined for 73 of the team’s 80 points.
UNM trails Colorado State (14-2, 10-2) by a game and a half in the standings. The Lobos are No. 56 in this week’s NET Rankings, making them a solid candidate for an NCAA Tournament berth.
As for the Lobos men, Wednesday night’s game at Air Force will come with one final regular-season game the week prior to the MWC Tournament. Their March 3 contest at Colorado State is more for the Rams’ benefit than theirs because CSU is tied for second in the conference standings and its 18 games are the fewest any MWC men’s team has played.
At 14-4 overall (11-3 in the league), the Rams are regarded as a strong candidate for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
“The conference office was charged by the membership with determining the optimal plan for rescheduling games which had been postponed during the course of the regular season,” said MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson. “This presented a very complex equation which included contemplating several variables, but this approach provides each institution the opportunity to control its own destiny over the final two weeks of the regular season and through the course of the Mountain West Tournament.”
The big blow to the UNM men came in the form of two losses handed down by the league office Tuesday. After the Lobos’ series against San Diego State on Feb. 3-5 in Lubbock, Texas, was called off after UNM’s roster dropped to just six players, the MWC declared those games as forfeits.
The losses drop the Lobos to 6-15 overall, 2-15 in the conference. That ties Air Force for last place.
The best New Mexico can hope for is the No. 9 seed in the MWC Tournament, which it could get by winning its final two games and getting some help from San Jose State.