The fellow traveler had played high school basketball.
He knew all about pick-and-rolls and screens and the psychology of making shots from certain spots on the floor. He explained it all in detail over a 90-minute flight from Fresno’s Yosemite International Airport to Phoenix last Sunday.
Like many passengers who see a dozen tall guys wearing matching cherry red warmups board flights this time of year, the man was curious.
That usually results in polite, but very brief, exchanges before players throw on headphones and quickly try to doze off to sleep, especially the morning after a loss.
But on this flight, University of New Mexico junior guard Anthony Mathis was there, coming through for his teammates in the back of the plane, letting them sleep while he engaged the former high school hooper in respectful conversation.
For the entire flight.
“Yeah, that one was long, but it’s all good,” Mathis said Thursday in a Thursday interview with the Journal from the Terminal B in the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev., awaiting the team’s flight back to Albuquerque. “Those talks are better after wins.”
Mathis again was there for his team when they needed him most — i.e., the final 1 minute, 7 seconds of Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 85-81 win at UNLV.
He had a 4-point play with 1:07 left in the game and a go-ahead 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining. The Lobos scored the final nine points to get their first road win of the season.
He is now the team’s second leading scorer on the season and Mathis’ 14.4-point average through seven Mountain West games leads the Lobos (9-11, 4-3 MWC) in conference play as they head into today’s home matchup with San Diego State (11-6, 3-3).
The emergence of the 6-foot-3, 3-point specialist from West Linn, Ore., has been a long time coming. He played a total of 228 minutes in 35 games through his first two seldom-used seasons with the Lobos. This season, Mathis has already played 384 minutes and, as his defense continues to improve, has seen minutes, and production, increase late in games.
But it almost never happened.
Mathis admits as he rode the bench the past two seasons, he questioned whether he just didn’t fit into what UNM wanted or if he was even good enough to play at all at this level.
“It was both, to be real,” Mathis said. “I questioned myself every day. Am I good enough for this? And that’s when I’d just get into the gym, no matter how many minutes I played — zero, like six, seven minutes. Get in the gym and try working on my craft. But I always questioned myself. Should I have just stayed home, maybe go to Oregon State, go the original route? …
“It just wasn’t going my way. But I just tried to control what I could control. Stayed positive. I loved this team. I loved everybody on this team last year.”
When last season ended, Mathis asked for, and was granted, his release from his UNM scholarship. Then the coaching change from Craig Neal to Paul Weir happened. After some research into Weir and hearing what he planned to do, including fire up 3-pointers like crazy, Mathis tried to prove to his new coach he deserved to come back.
And he’s never looked back.
“I just believed, whether I’ve been making 1,000 3s or making zero 3s, I was just so bought into what he was giving us,” Mathis said. “(Weir is) just a great dude to play for. I’d run through a wall for him and I’m sure he’d do the same for me.”
Weir has praised Mathis’ buy-in all season. And, while the coach still expects more strides on defense, Weir has been pleased with how hard Mathis has worked and with the role on the team.
“Anthony is obviously a terrific offensive player,” Weir said Wednesday night after the UNLV win. “He was I think 1-for-7 (from 3-point range) going into that last minute there. Made some real big ones late. He was key really down the stretch.”
Mathis said he had the trust of his teammates and got a particular boost of confidence from assistant coach Jerome Robinson during a timeout that helped give him the confidence to fire away in the final minute.
“Coach Jerome said, ‘I don’t care if you’re 0-for-30. If you’re open, shoot it,'” Mathis said. “I got that last look and I just shot it. I shot with confidence.”
PURPLE FOR A CAUSE: The athletic department is partnering with the on-campus LoboRESPECT advocacy center to help raise awareness for domestic violence. There will be announcements, videos and graphic throughout the game and the team will wear special purple-highlighted shooting shirts in warmups. Fans can get bench seats for $10.