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Aztecs Showed More Poise

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Young squad withstood Lobos’ opening 10-0 run early in game

It’s only one loss. And the only one in the past 14 games.

But New Mexico’s 75-70 men’s basketball home setback against San Diego State on Wednesday did shed some light on where the Lobos (15-3, 1-1) are in the national picture, as well as the Mountain West Conference.

This was supposed to be, to coin a phrase from former Lobos coach Dave Bliss, “a Pit game.” A game in which a wild home crowd simply wills the Lobos to a victory.

It sure started that way. A sellout throng of 15,411 helped the Lobos rock the arena – and the 16th-ranked Aztecs – to the tune of a 10-0 start just 2 1/2minutes into the game.

The Lobos are all about punching first, and they did just that.

But SDSU (16-2, 2-0) quickly countered, then backed the Lobos into the ropes with a series of haymakers on the way to a 13-point lead in the second half. Only five late 3-point Lobo Hail Mary’s kept the final margin under double-digits.

The Lobos couldn’t find a way to contain the smaller but quicker Aztecs, especially sophomore guards Xavier Thames (22 points, four assists) and Jamaal Franklin (12 points, five rebounds, two assists).

On offense, UNM struggled much like it did against Rick Majerus’ Saint Louis bunch last month in the Pit. But unlike that game – when the Lobos were able to just put their head down, drive to the hoop and draw fouls in a 64-60 victory – the Aztecs were too quick for that ploy. The Lobos were bottled up all evening and couldn’t get off good shots or draw fouls (going a season low 3-of-7 from the line).

“Really, they didn’t do anything that surprised us (defensively),” said UNM senior guard Phillip McDonald, who had a team-high 20 points. “We didn’t do a good job on the offensive end. We didn’t move; we didn’t cut; we were standing still. We have to execute better than that.”

What makes the Aztecs’ season so impressive is how young and inexperienced they are. This team that lost four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team – including Kawhi Leonard – who bolted after his sophomore season for the NBA. But coach Steve Fisher hasn’t held a pity party.

“He told us all week that it was going to be a great crowd, and the guys were going to come out intense,” Thames, said of the way Fisher prepared the Aztecs for the early barrage. “When they made that 10-0 run, we stuck together, and coach just brought us together.”

Thames went 7-of-11 from the floor, 3-of-5 from 3-point range and 5-of-5 from the line. Fisher said Thames was the difference Wednesday, but he isn’t usually.

“We won five or six really close games, and it was never the same guy,” Fisher said. “If you look at our schedule that we had, starting with (a loss to third-ranked) Baylor at Baylor, we had seven straight games that I thought at best were a coin-flip, and we won five of them. And we gave up a 17-point lead at home against (No. 19) Creighton. But we found ways to win all the others.

“… And when you win, you feel like you’re going to win the next one. And 34-3 last year, it doesn’t matter who’s still here; we believe our team’s still going to win.”

The Lobos knew that winning feeling, as well, having won 13 straight prior to Wednesday. Now they need to regroup quickly to prevent a second straight setback. On Saturday they play at 14th-ranked UNLV (17-3, 1-1), a team that lost 69-67 at San Diego State last weekend.

“We probably have the toughest environment that we have to go into, and they are outstanding,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “This was a difficult week, and it did not start out well for us, so we have to pick things up and make some adjustments and play better on Saturday.

“It makes it very difficult in the league race when you lose games at home, and losing this one puts our back against the wall early in the conference race, and now we have to make up for that on the road.”
See AZTECS on PAGE D4OnlineFor a slide show of photographs from Wednesday’s game, go to ABQjournal.com/sportsSaturdayUNM at UNLV, 8 p.m.TV: CBS Sports Net (DirecTV 613, Dish 152, Comcast 274)

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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