LAS CRUCES — They came to welcome back an old friend.
They left ecstatic about the two newcomers they met along the way.
Zach Lofton, a graduate transfer from Texas Southern, scored a game-high 28 points, and new New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans won in his first taste of the Rio Grande Rivalry, pulling away from the University of New Mexico Lobos 75-56 in front of a very vocal Pan American Center crowd announced at 6,839.
While all the talk leading up to Friday night was about Paul Weir’s return to face his old team, Lofton wanted a win for Weir’s successor.
“He might not know until now, but that was my No. 1 priority,” said Lofton, the 6-foot-4 guard. “I seen it in (Jan’s) face that he really, really wanted this game. And we really wanted this game for him. He’s growing on us, man. We like him a lot. To get this win for him, it’s lovely, man. Honestly.”
Weir was booed relentlessly throughout the game, his first in the Pan Am Center as the Lobos head coach after a decade on staff at NMSU.
The outcome had little to do with Weir, whose team couldn’t muster any semblance of the system or culture the program had been talking about since April.
Instead, it was NMSU that had the energy down the stretch and pulled away from a flustered Lobos squad that couldn’t keep the Aggies off the boards.
The Aggies had 25 offensive rebounds, leading to 23 second-chance points. UNM grabbed just 25 total rebounds on a night it missed plenty of shots (20-of-52 for 39.5 percent).
“I’ve seen first hand what Eli (Chuha) and Jemerrio (Jones) can do to people on the backboard, and they did an amazing job with that tonight,” Weir said of the Aggies’ front court. They combined for 23 rebounds, 11 on the offensive glass. “I thought they really controlled the game there. … They were really the aggressor and … when you’re the aggressor, it sets a tempo onto the game that we just couldn’t instill ourselves.”
NMSU made just 1 of its first 13 shots while the Lobos jumped out to an 8-1 lead. Then a Chris McNeal 3-pointer with 15:01 left in the opening half pushed the Lobos lead to 11-3.
After that, NMSU controlled the glass and UNM couldn’t dictate the same run-and-gun tempo that had it leading the nation in scoring after two wins last week vs. overmatched teams in Dreamstyle Arena.
“That’s the tricky question that everyone’s going to have to answer when you play against them,” Jans said. “Do you want to play in a track meet? Because they want you to, obviously. And if you break that initial press then you’ve got numbers. We told our guys, it has to be a feel thing. We didn’t tell them to pull it out. We didn’t tell them to attack. We told them to make good decisions. Get in there and evaluate where you’re at.”
The game had 68 possessions. UNM’s first two games averaged 95.5.
Two Lobos scored in double figures — reserve guard Anthony Mathis at 14 and starter Chris McNeal at 10. But the Lobos turned the ball over 17 times and forced 14 by the Aggies, well below their game goal of 20.
And in the end, Weir got his wish that he stated two days prior to the game when he said he had hoped he wouldn’t be the story of the game.
“I wish it was a better game than it was,” Weir said. “Unfortunately it wasn’t as competitive as I would have hoped for all the people who came out and watched. I’m glad for the people that did. Thank you to Lobo fans that came down and watched. I apologize for what you saw tonight. We have to get back to work and improve our product. We weren’t very good tonight.”
MASKED MEN: Many of those in the packed NMSU student section located next to the Lobos bench were wearing surgical masks throughout the game. Asked prior to tipoff why, one student told the Journal, “So we don’t catch the disloyalty that will be in the arena tonight. We hear it’s contagious.”
Among the pleasantries exchanged between the student section and Weir during the game were, “Wea-sel, sell-out! Wea-sel, sell-out!” and “Paul Weir sucks!” and at one point after a piece of debris flew on the court, bringing a brief stoppage to the game and leading the public address announcer to warn fans to not throw items on the court, the students chanted, “It was Paul! It was Paul!”
NMSU did not provide extra security for the game, but did reposition several police officers closer to the visiting bench and two police officers escorted Weir in and out of the locker room.
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought the fans were terrific,” Weir said. “I didn’t feel mistreated in any way, and even if I was, that’s their right to do it. I thought it was a great game.”
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