This time, the Lobos truly believed they had done enough.
The team that hasn’t been able to play defense held the No. 2-ranked offense in the Mountain West Conference in check in the second half.
The team that hasn’t been able to find an identity on offense got 16 second-half points from its senior sharpshooter and 18 points from its star post player.
And after another early hole, the UNM Lobos on Saturday afternoon in Dreamstyle Arena — the Pit rallied from 14 points down to earn a one-point lead and possession with 31 seconds remaining.
But that is when the same Lobos who often seem to be unable to get out of their own way fell on the wrong side of a blown call, setting up Utah State’s Abel Porter for a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining in a 68-66 Aggies win in front of a stunned announced crowd of 10,752.
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) January 27, 2019
“I feel like Sean Payton,” said Lobos coach Paul Weir in reference to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints coach, whose team was on the wrong end of a blown call in a loss in last week’s NFC Championship game.
With the Lobos leading 66-65 against the 7-point favorites, UNM senior guard Anthony Mathis, who hit four second-half 3-pointers and scored all 16 of his points in the final 14 minutes, was walking the ball up court. As the Aggies (15-5, 5-2) appeared ready to trap him once he crossed midcourt, he jumped in the air and passed to teammate Vance Jackson.
Head official Winston Stith called an over-and-back violation, giving Utah State the ball. It set up — 30 seconds later — a pass from Aggies sharpshooter Sam Merrill (22 points) to Porter, who was just placed on scholarship in the past week. Porter took one dribble to his right and buried the game winner.
“We set up our press and we weren’t as aggressive as I wanted us to be,” said first-year Utah State coach Craig Smith. “And then we just kind of ran a guy at (Mathis) and we got the over-and-back call.”
The call on Mathis was not reviewable by rule, though video of the play clearly shows the ball was never in the frontcourt when Mathis had it, passed it or when Jackson caught it, meaning it could never have been over and back.
Horrible call. Took that game from the Lobos. pic.twitter.com/YCuXlJLOm0
— A_bal3 (@A_Bal3) January 26, 2019
The Journal asked Stith for a comment on his call, which was relayed to the press through the UNM sports information relations department. Instead of detailing what he saw, Stith essentially read the rule: “Front court status is attained once all three points are across (ball and two feet). A ball that is not in contact with a player or the playing court retains the same status as when it was last in contact with a player.”
A couple hours after the game, the Mountain West acknowledged the call was wrong in a statement:
“After postgame video review, the Mountain West has determined the whistle for a back-court violation in the final minute of the Utah State at New Mexico men’s basketball game was incorrect. Inasmuch as the situation involved a judgment call, it was not reviewable via the instant replay monitor in accordance with NCAA Playing Rule 11-1.4. The matter will be addressed via the Conference’s internal officiating evaluation procedures.”
Meanwhile, the Lobos (9-11, 3-5) have lost five of their last six games and have six losses in the Pit.
“Unfortunately it was not over and back,” Weir said. “I just watched the film. … But I don’t want to construe that as that’s the reason we lost. We obviously did a lot of other things. It just sucks for us right now, just to fight back like that in the second half and give ourselves a chance to win.
“Unfortunately, one play for us does mean a lot. We don’t have a large margin of error where we just go out and overwhelm teams in certain ways. We need, unfortunately, calls and things that might be 50/50 to go our way. That play there ended up being a huge play in the game.”
Mathis was one of four Lobos to score in double figures, along with Carlton Bragg (18), Vance Jackson (13) and Makuach Maluach (12).
For Utah State, star freshman center Neemias Queta finished with eight points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots and six turnovers. He was in foul trouble early, keeping his minutes and usual aggression relatively in check. But his presence alone clearly played a factor in the game.
USU had 22 points in the paint in the first half to UNM’s 4. In the second half, with Queta in foul trouble, UNM had 14 points in the paint to USU’s eight.
Ultimately, to Weir and the Lobos, while they felt the played well, the “how” part of the equation in their loss didn’t seem to matter much.
“To me, you want to be process-oriented, not win-and-loss-oriented,” Weir said. “Unfortunately, the losing takes a toll, and this losing is taking a toll. We have to find a way to win some games while we’re process-oriented because it’s really hard to just stick with that.”
BOX SCORE: Utah_State 68, New Mexico 66
Up next: Saturday, Feb. 2: UNM at Fresno State, 8 p.m., ESPNU, 770 AM/94.5 FM