U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The coach too stubborn to make adjustments, made some adjustments.
And the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team opened the 20th season of Mountain West Conference play with a newfound defensive identity and a 65-58 road win over Air Force in the Clune Arena gym that has given the Lobos fits for years.
“At the end of the day, this was a win we couldn’t get a year ago,” said Lobos head coach Paul Weir, whose Lobos lost on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy not only last year, but four of the previous five times they played in Clune Arena dating back to the final regular season game coached by Steve Alford in 2013.
“To come here and get this one at this point — this team still has a lot of potential. I still feel that. We still feel that. It just took me a while — the coach, to figure out what it was to get it out of us. Maybe this is the start of something.”
The Lobos (7-6, 1-0 Mountain West) didn’t just tweak the defense. After having not practiced zone defense much at all before the Dec. 18 home loss to North Texas, and after plenty of criticism for staying loyal to their man-to-man principles despite teams torching them in nonconference play, the Lobos had a crash course the past two weeks on zone defense.
Wednesday, they used a modified high 2-3 zone look every possession of half court defense (they still pressed throughout the game), holding Air Force (5-8, 0-1) to 38.1 percent shooting and under 30 points in each half.
Air Force hit the century mark in a 100-92 win against Weir’s man-to-man Lobos a season ago.
“They’re a great 2-point percentage team,” Weir said of Air Force. “Probably top 15 in the country by just spreading you out, back-dooring you, driving you. So part of that (playing zone every possession) was we just wanted to go to zone to try and eliminate their 2-point percentages and really take them off the 3-point line and really make them have to make 2-point jumpers.”
They got what they wanted. While the Falcons’ top player, junior forward Lavelle Scottie, scored 14 of his 20 points in the first half, it was on 7-of-20 shooting (he was 10-of-27 overall in the game) and almost exclusively on 10- to 12-foot jump shots that he was caught off guard by.
“I was actually pretty surprised I was going to get that many looks in the zone,” said Scottie, who entered the game shooting 50.9 percent from the field. “It was just surprising.”
Thanks to its defense, the Lobos led 38-29 at halftime despite starter Carlton Bragg playing only five minutes due to foul trouble and leading scorer Anthony Mathis being held scoreless while the target of heavy Air Force defensive attention.
“They were just making it really hard to catch — to get a clean look at the basket,” Mathis said. “… It was hard to get shots off.”
But Mathis wasn’t shut out the entire game.
While he was 0-for-5 shooting for 30 and a half of his 36 minutes played on Wednesday, he did one of his customary scoring flurries in the second half that pushed the Lobos lead to 53-40 and allowed them the cushion to hold off a late Falcons run.
In a span of 5:33, Mathis went 5-of-7, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 13 consecutive Lobo points. In the final 23 seconds of the game, he added four more points, all at the free throw line, to ice the game as Air Force was forced to foul.
“They were so worried about Anthony,” Weir said. “I though Vance (Jackson) had some great looks. I thought Dane (Kuiper) had some great looks. I though Makuach (Maluach) had some great looks. As they got going, their (Air Force) defense spread out a little bit and that gave Anthony a little bit more room to operate.”
Jackson scored 14 for the Lobos, Maluach 12 and Kuiper 10 and the trio combined for six 3-pointers.
UNM had 19 turnovers, leading to 20 AFA points. Three Falcons scored in double figures, led by Scottie’s 20.
NOTES: UNM has won eight consecutive MWC openers. … PG Keith McGee was on the trip after saying he fell ill Sunday in Hobbs before the Lobos game. He went back to Albuquerque after that game while the team flew to Colorado. His status for Saturday’s game against Nevada is not known. … The Lobos took a charter flight home to Albuquerque on Wednesday night.
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Saturday: No. 6 Nevada at UNM, 6 p.m., ESPNU, 770 AM/94.5 FM