The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team avenged a Feb. 14 home loss to Wyoming to get an 87-76 win over the Cowboys in Wednesday’s opening round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Lobos (22-10) need to win four games in as many days to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It’s a tall order, but one that can only be done in small increments.
They got the first with a hot second half that started with a Jamal Mashburn Jr. jumper at the 16-minute mark. It ignited a 17-4 run that put the Lobos up by 11 at the midway point of the half. As hot as Mashburn was in the second half — 13 points while playing all 20 minutes — Jaelen House was even better.
The all-conference guard scored 20 of his team-high 28 points after halftime, sinking a pair of 3-pointers with four assists.
“You know, he is so emotional, but in a great way,” said UNM coach Richard Pitino. “That’s why we’ve won 22 games. That’s why he is an all-conference player. There are some times he needs to slow down a little bit, but that’s what makes him great. More often than not his emotion and energy is going to end in a positive, and for a lot of this year when we’ve had him — we obviously dropped Air Force and Wyoming without him, and that took us out of an at-large bid. But when he is in there we’re pretty good.”
Morris Udeze posted another double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds while forward Josiah Allick had 12 points and six boards.
The two marveled at the number of Lobos fans to make the trip to Las Vegas, something that isn’t all that surprising in a year of resurgence for Pitino’s program.
“I mean, even when we played at Air Force, we probably had more fans there than they did,” Allick said. “We have an amazing fan base, and, I mean, they came out and they showed up. It really did feel like a home game here tonight.”
Wyoming was playing without coach Jeff Linder. Various reports indicated Linder was at a Denver hospital tending to his sick father.
The Cowboys did have guard Hunter Maldonado, though. He poured in 36 points before fouling out late in the game.
Allick drew the assignment of slowing him down in the second half. Maldonado did, sort of. He had 20 at halftime.
“Yeah, I mean it’s hard to kind of accept a compliment for defense when a guy scores 36, but I’ll take it,” Allick said. “I just tried to make him work a little bit extra hard and tried not to switch off him as much as I could but, I mean, yeah, it’s hard to talk about my defense when dude has 36.”
UNM led by as many as 15 in the second half, getting all but four of their total points from the five starters.
The Lobos will face Utah State, the tournament’s third seed, in a 9:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal. The Aggies won the teams’ only meeting earlier this season. The teams have been on opposite trajectories ever since; Utah State appears to be a lock for the NCAA, while the Lobos are a win-it-all-or-go-home team.
“I feel like just as a team we kind of got into a slow start,” said Udeze of the loss to the Aggies. “Especially myself with a couple of turnovers early.”
Pitino said an advantage the Lobos will have is the fact that the game is on a neutral court and not in Logan, Utah, a place where the Aggies fans have a big impact on games.
“I think the biggest thing for us is get some rest [Wednesday],” Pitino said.