ALBUQUERQUE — Quick, someone pass the salt shaker.
A few grains of the crystalline spice are required after watching the University of New Mexico crush visiting Wyoming, 97-68, on Saturday afternoon in The Pit.
The win snaps a three-game losing streak and is just the second time in four weeks the Lobos have walked away winners. It also marked the return of guards Vance Jackson and JaQuan Lyle; the two missed the last four games as UNM’s depleted roster scraped the bottom of the depth chart in their absence.
Given the recent calamity that has been UNM hoops, the 29-point victory temporarily restores a sense of optimism and confidence for a team that was in dire need of gifts Wyoming offered. The Cowboys came in as one of the worst rebounding teams in the country and the worst team in the Mountain West Conference.
The Lobos (17-8, 6-6) responded with three players with at least 20 points, including a career-high 28 from power forward Corey Manigault. Zane Martin equaled his UNM career high with 23 while Jackson had 20 on a career-high six 3-pointers.
They also outrebounded the Cowboys, 46-27, holding Wyoming (6-19, 1-12) without an offensive board until the third minute of the second half.
“I know we’re missing Carlton [Bragg] and JJ [Caldwell]. They were valuable players to our team,” Jackson said. “But we still have valuable pieces. We’re still a great team. It’s just we got to play together and just stay positive. Everybody needs to calm down. Everybody on Twitter going crazy and stuff, but it’s all good.”
Jackson went nuts in the second half, scoring 14 straight points on four 3s and a pair of free throws. The third of those long-range bombs had him drift backward downcourt raising both arms above his head as he gestured to the crowd to let loose and have fun.
The looseness that the team played with has shown through in several ways, including some late-game dunks that brought the crowd of 10,732 to its feet a few times. Manigault got into the act, matching a career-best with two 3s of his own.
He said afterward that the team’s chemistry was never an issue despite all the distractions the off-court issues have brought since late December. Head coach Paul Weir echoed that sentiment, saying the one good thing about the team all along has been its ability to not turn on one another.
“I feel like even though we’ve had a tougher stretch in a lot of different ways, I feel like we never broke,” he said. “I always felt we kind of stuck together. Even after the Fresno game, as tough as it was, as a staff we were just sitting there like that was a bit of a litmus test game. We didn’t win but at least we responded. At least we’re still digging. There’s a pulse in there, still, and we need to resuscitate the rest of it.”
The fact that the depth is approaching normal again now that Lyle and Jackson are back is a positive twist for the Lobos. Lyle only had five points in 28 minutes and Jackson was relatively quiet until his second-half outburst, but there’s no denying that them being out there made everyone else better.
The pair combined to go just 3-for-13 shooting in the first half. The rest of the team was 10 of 21, a stat Weir said is evidence that opposing defenses are drawn to dangerous players, and when that happens, everyone else gets open shots.
“They’re out there just taking those bullets and it allows those other guys to kind of come into less-pressure situations,” Weir said. “The reality is JaQuan and Vance are going to be guarded by two of the better players, so now Makuach Maluach and Keith McGee and Zane Martin, they’re just going to have better matchups on the floor.”
So what’s it all mean in the short term? Up next is a Tuesday road trip to undefeated No. 4 San Diego State, so probably not a whole lot.
As for the long term, it means it’s as optimistic as one can expect given the turnover and still-shorthanded nature of the UNM men’s basketball team. Two of the team’s next three games are at home and a top-five finish in the MWC standings (and first-round bye in the MWC Tournament) is still well within reach.
Milestone: Weir picked up his 50th win as Lobos head coach, making him 50-41 in his two-plus years with the program.
Glass work: Wyoming came into the game averaging just five offensive rebounds a game, worst in the conference. They had four Saturday, all in the second half.
Depth chart: Fans started chanting for walk-on Clay Patterson with about three minutes left. He eventually got in, as did fellow walk-on Jordan Arroyo and true freshman Kurt Wegscheider. Those three, along with freshman Emmanual Kuac, all saw a drastic cut to their playing time thanks to the return of Jackson and Lyle.
Easy, pal: Manigault twice got the evil eye from Lyle after the 6-9 forward leaped into Lyle's zone to snare a rebound. Both times down the court Lyle glared at Manigault; Corey finished with nine rebounds while Lyle had six.
Showtime: McGee had the dunk of the day when he rose well above the rim to throw down a monster jam in the final minute of play. Weir said he likes the high-flying dunks but only if it means the other team isn't being shown up.
Looking ahead: Five of the Lobos' final six regular season games are against teams ahead of them in the MWC standings. Entering Tuesday's game at SDSU, they are alone in seventh place, meaning if the season were to end now, they would face San Jose State in the opening round.