Nearly 30 minutes after Sunday’s thrilling 91-90 win in Dreamstyle Arena — one that secured for the University of New Mexico a season sweep of rival UNLV and moved the Lobos into a tie for third place in the Mountain West, Joe Furstinger had a message.
The Lobos’ 6-foot-9 senior forward waited until after all the press conferences and interviews had been concluded and made his way into the media room to deliver a message in person to a beat writer covering the team.
“Makuach is the Mountain West Freshman of the Year,” Furstinger said.
That was it.
Simple. Direct. Not at all lacking in conviction.
And it was important enough for Furstinger that he wanted to make sure he made clear, in person, to a reporter after Sunday’s game that he and his teammates believe enough in their teammate that some people start to take notice.
And, while the season stats may not make an obvious case for UNM freshman Makuach Maluach, the 6-foot-5 forward who was once a refugee from South Sudan who moved to Australia before making his way to the United States to play for the Lobos (15-14, 10-6 MWC), it’s hard to argue he belonged in the conversation while having more impact on winning the key MWC game than the presumptive winner of the award in the opposing uniform.
With 44.5 seconds remaining in Sunday’s back-and-forth game, and the Lobos trailing the Rebels 88-86, it was Maluach who caught the ball at the top of the key and drove past UNLV’s Shakur Juiston down the left side of the lane, stopped, spun back around and dropped in a baby hook in the lane to tie the game at 88-88.
After the Rebels’ Jovan Mooring hit two of three free throws — UNLV (19-10, 8-8) attempted 40 in the game — to put UNLV up 90-88 with 30.7 seconds left, it was Maluach again who, not knowing the moment was supposed to be too big for a freshman, took an Antino Jackson pass just a few feet to the right of where his previous drive had started and calmly drained a go-ahead 3-pointer with 17.5 second left, sending into eruption the announced Pit crowd of 12,080.
“The previous possession, I think it was, we were able to stretch (the floor),” Weir said. “Makuach was able to drive to the baseline for (the up and under that tied the game). That, I think, opened up the 3-point shot on the next play.”
Maluach finished with 13 points — 11 in the second half and eight in the final 3:31 — and was one of five Lobos to score in double figures, led by Anthony Mathis (18) and Sam Logwood (17).
Furstinger had fouled out of the game with 3:48 remaining on what originally was called a charge on UNLV’s Brandon McCoy, the likely winner of the league’s freshman of the year, who was driving to the basket and had his layup called off after the foul, which would have been his fourth foul and the Lobos would have been up 81-79 with the ball.
Instead, after a video review during a media timeout, game official Tom O’Neill overturned his own call, saying Furstinger’s feet were in the restricted arc under the basket, changed the call to a blocking foul that ended Furstinger’s night and put UNLV up 82-81 after McCoy converted a three-point play.
It was UNLV’s first lead of the second half and the Pit seemed to be in shock.
“I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, you’re going to look back on this and say this was a critical moment,’” Weir said. “But all we’ve talked about since the Boise (State last-minute loss on Feb. 6) was poise and staying engaged, not letting the emotion of the game get to us.”
On the ensuing Lobos possession, Maluach slammed home a baseline dunk and instead of UNM wilting down the stretch, it was able to survive the would-be momentum shift and go toe-to-toe with the talented Rebels the rest of the way.
“I just told the guys, we’re not supposed to be doing this,” Weir said after the game. “That’s the reality of it. What we’re doing right now, with these guys, they’re a great team to coach. They really bought in. They make the values that people don’t think exist anymore — they make them still exist. The value of work ethic, of mental toughness, of togetherness, of unselfishness. That can overcome whatever those other things might be — the charter filghts (most other MWC teams get), the budgets, the whatever we’re going up against. We just have to go out and give it everything we’ve got. …
“We just scrapped it out and found a way to win.”
And on the other side of the court, Weir’s nine-year boss at New Mexico State, Marvin Menzies, was left biting his tongue about the officiating on a rough non-call at the buzzer for his team and disappointed with another loss in the Pit (he is 3-8 all-time in the arena).
“I don’t think I can honestly answer that without some kind of potential fallout,” Menzies said when asked what he saw on the last play when his team had three shot attempts to go ahead before the buzzer sounded. “I saw two teams battling. And one of the teams won. I don’t really know how to put that into words.”
UNLV was 28-of-40 (70 percent) from the free-throw line, outrebounded UNM 39-28 and had four players score in double figures led by a career-high 25 and nine assists from point guard Jordan Johnson.
The Lobos shot 82.8 percent (24-for-29) from the charity stripe and were 11-of-22 from 3-point range.
NOTES: Furstinger had 13 points and two blocked shots before fouling out in 18 minutes of play. His first-half blocked shot gave him 100 for his career. … Junior Jachai Simmons suited up but did not play and was seen limping during warmups before each half began. Asked why he didn’t play, Weir said it was a coach’s decision. … UNM secured its third 10-win league record in a row and is 4-2 in February, a month that had hurt the program in recent seasons.
FINAL: New Mexico 91, UNLV 90
• UNLV 8-8
• UNM 10-6
Video of final sequence… pic.twitter.com/UBwO0EUOb3
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) February 25, 2018
Makuach Maluach 3 gives Lobos 91-90 lead w/ 17.5 left… UNLV calls timeout with 10.5 left. pic.twitter.com/cSYkPTuDaK
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) February 25, 2018