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The basketball gods owed the University of New Mexico one.
Nearly two years to the day after one of college basketball’s most historic comebacks, or collapses, depending on your perspective, went the other way between the same two teams in the same gym, the Lobos cashed in on Saturday night.
UNM dominated the previously undefeated and No. 6-ranked Nevada Wolf Pack, 85-58, in front of a nearly deafening announced crowd of 12,702 in Dreamstyle Arena — the Pit on Saturday night.
“They’re a great team,” said UNM senior Anthony Mathis, who scored a game-high 27 points. “They came in here undefeated. They’re the No. 6 team in the country. But that’s what the Pit is. That’s truly a Pit game.”
For various reasons, Saturday’s outcome was arguably as improbable as the one on Jan. 7, 2017, when the Wolf Pack rallied from 25 points down in the final 11 minutes to beat the Lobos in overtime and make national news.
This go ’round, the college basketball world was again buzzing about the showdown in the Pit, but this time because the struggling Lobos (8-6, 2-0 Mountain West), 15-point underdogs, beat a Wolf Pack (14-1, 1-1) team that was expected by many national pundits to be this season’s last undefeated team.
Instead, the Lobos dominated throughout, leading at one point by 29 points (83-54 on Mathis’ fifth 3-pointer of the game). UNM held the Pack to 33.3 percent shooting and just 4-of-22 (18.2 percent) from 3-point range.
Jordan Caroline, who scored a Pit opponent-record 45 points in the 2017 game, again led Nevada on Saturday, but with 17 points he was the only Pack player in double figures. Reigning MWC Player of the Year Caleb Martin finished with 8 points on just 2-of-14 shooting against the new-look zone defense the Lobos have only really utilized for two games.
“We weren’t our normal selves,” said Nevada coach Eric Musselman. “We couldn’t make foul shots. We couldn’t make (shots). Extremely disappointed with the effort. I haven’t said that much in four years (coaching at Nevada). I was disappointed with the lack of fight down the stretch. We’re everybody’s biggest game of the year, so you got to know that. There’s big-time responsibility that comes with people circling you on the schedule. We get everybody’s best shot and up until tonight, we’ve held our ground. And we didn’t do that tonight.”
Perhaps, but the Lobos claimed they tried to treat Saturday’s game like any other, despite the history with Nevada and the status of their program.
“It’s just about competing,” said UNM head coach Paul Weir. “That’s all we’ve talked about for two days. Let the Pit be the Pit. Let all that stuff take care of itself. We just need to execute possession by possession. Who the opponent is doesn’t even matter. We just do what we do. Thankfully we were able to do that tonight.”
While Nevada’s five starting fifth-year seniors didn’t handle the pressure of the Pit, the Lobos got contributions up and down the roster. Sophomores Vance Jackson (18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists) and Makuach Maluach (14 points) seemed to hit key shot after key shot when Nevada tried to make runs. Instead, the Lobos answered every time, keeping Nevada’s largest run to 5-0 in the first half (there was a 6-0 run that spanned the two halves as well). UNM junior Carlton Bragg, who started playing just in mid-December, added nine points and 12 rebounds and was the focus of plenty of Nevada defensive attention.
It was those players, Weir said, that Saturday was about. Not himself or the recent changes he has implemented with the team’s defense or approach to games.
“The only reason we lost some games (in the nonconference) has nothing to do with them,” Weir said. “It might just be because they had a bad basketball coach for 11 games. Hopefully I’ll continue to not get in the way of good players being good players. …
“This is about players and these guys played their butts off. And they bought into what I’m selling.”
MILESTONES: Saturday tied UNM’s largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent and largest ever vs. a top 10 opponent. … UNM’s last win against a top 10 team was March 15, 2014, against No. 7 San Diego State.
JERSEYS: The Lobos wore yellow New Mexico state flag-themed jerseys with red trim, a Zia symbol on the chest and a red state outline on the back with “1912” on the back along with their jersey numbers.
The game was a part of UNM’s “We are New Mexico” night, and the jerseys are supposed to be a one-time deal.
It’s hard to image now that will be their only appearance this season.
“Amazing,” Mathis said when asked his thoughts on the jerseys. “Obviously we won in them, so I want to wear them every game for now on.”
TUESDAY: UNLV at New Mexico, 9 p.m., ESPN2, 770 AM/94.5 FM