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Lobos could use big help from their big men vs. Utah State

In a lot of ways, the UNM Lobos got what they wanted in their Jan. 26 home game against Utah State, aside from it being a two-point loss that included a blown over-and-back violation call to set up the Aggies for their final possession with 31 seconds to play.

And despite the pain of that 68-66 loss, the Lobos likely would be ecstatic if they again could be in a one-possession game vs. the 14½-point favorites in the final minute of Wednesday night’s late-starting (9 p.m.), nationally televised (ESPNU) rematch in Logan, Utah.

In the first game, the Lobos (11-14, 5-8 Mountain West) didn’t allow Utah State (20-6, 10-3) freshman of the year candidate Neemias Queta to dominate the paint at both ends of the court quite like the 6-foot-11 center does most games. They mostly neutralized him with early foul trouble — something Lobo big men are doing at better than most teams in the Mountain West.

While finishing at the rim has been a head-scratching problem for the Lobos, as was chronicled in the Journal earlier this week, and while Utah State ranks third best in the nation in 2-point percentage defense, UNM will likely lean heavily again on getting the ball inside to three of the most prolific big men in the league at drawing fouls. At 6-foot-10, Carlton Bragg is second in the Mountain West drawing 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes, and 6-9 Vance Jackson is 10th at 5.1. UNM’s third big man, 6-9 Corey Manigault, draws 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes, but hasn’t played enough to be ranked in that league’s statistical category.

That’s three Lobos drawing enough whistles to foul out an opponent over the course of a 40-minute game.

But, if Wednesday’s Utah State rematch does in fact find itself close down the stretch again like on Jan. 26, the Lobos will have to do much better with all those fouls they draw.

UNM draws fouls at the highest rate in MWC play of all 11 teams, gets the highest percentage of its points on free throws (21.0 percent) and is third in the league at free throw percentage (73.4).

But that last stat — ranking third in the league in free throw percentage — might seem hard to believe if all you did was watch the Lobos in the final minutes of recent games. In the past four losses:

  • Vs. Utah State on Jan. 26, UNM was 4-of-5 from the line in the second half, with the only miss being the front end of a 1-and-1 attempt with 1:39 left;
  •  At Fresno State on Feb. 2, three of UNM’s five second-half misses were in the final 2:35;
  • At Nevada on Feb. 9, three of UNM’s four second-half misses were in the final 1:23;
  •  Saturday vs. Fresno State, the Lobos missed five of their final 11 from the stripe over the final 6:35 while the outcome was still in doubt.

“(I told the team) if it’s not conditioning, which I don’t think it is because we’re still running a lot and staying in good shape, it’s your nutrition, it’s your sleep, it’s your hydration,” Lobos coach Paul Weir said after Saturday’s loss. “… I just felt like midway through that second half, we didn’t have that pop. Now, (Fresno State) didn’t either. They were calling timeouts. They were tired. But we’ve got to be able to close the game out with a good physical and mental stamina about ourselves.”

3-BALLS: Utah State has his 10 or more 3-pointers in eight of its past nine games. The one exception was going 9-of-18 against UNM.

The Lobos, meanwhile, have quietly been quite good about limiting teams beyond the arc, allowing double digit 3-pointers only five times, three in league play. But one of those was Saturday’s loss to Fresno State, when the Bulldogs drained 14, several from at least five feet beyond the circle.

“I’ll go back and look at the film, but I’d say four 3s were from 25-feet-plus tonight,” Weir said Saturday. “… They made at least five 3s from beyond NBA range and quite honestly, that’s not something we’re going out trying to take away (defensively) — the NBA 3.”