LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Vance Jackson refused to let the season end.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore transfer from Connecticut had to sit at home and watch the 2017-18 New Mexico Lobos make a magical late-season run — riding a seven-game win streak into a Mountain West tournament championship game that had them about seven minutes of winning play away from the NCAA Tournament.
On Wednesday afternoon in the Thomas & Mack Center, in a season that has been anything but magical for UNM, Jackson went on a personal 13-0 run over three minutes of the second half, dramatically shifting momentum and carrying the No. 7 Lobos to a 78-68 win over No. 10 Wyoming in the first round of this year’s tournament.
“Our season is on the line,” Jackson said. “And, me, personally, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the team and our staff, we just don’t want to lose. So we’ve got to do whatever it takes for us to get it done and that’s what happened.”
But it certainly wasn’t what was happening early.
The Lobos (14-17), who next face No. 2 Utah State in the quarterfinals Thursday night at 7 (CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/94.5 FM), trailed Wyoming (8-24) by 16 points in the first half. The first half included back-to-back shot-clock violations and a generally disjointed effort that included UNM shooting 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) from the field, sophomores Carlton Bragg and Keith McGee drawing three fouls apiece, and the Cowboys hitting seven 3-pointers.
The Lobo-heavy crowd was restless, but still loud as always, at the break when Wyoming led 38-27.
“All being said, we had 23 deflections at half,” Lobos coach Paul Weir said. “The game was at the pace I wanted. I told the guys that part of playing this pace and this style, it’s a second-half, end-of-game kind of thing. And we had the game where we wanted it.”
Reminiscent of last season, the Lobos used a relentless full-court press that clearly caused issues for a thin Wyoming roster that appeared tired after halftime.
“There were a few times they did speed us up — me, A.J. (Banks), Jake (Hendricks), all the guards,” said Justin James, who scored a game high 31 points. “Yeah, we did a really good job in the first half just continuing to play our pace, get the right shots we wanted. But I feel like in the second half it was kind of like a panic because they were making shots.”
Weir said he knew seeing the pressure get to Wyoming late in Saturday’s loss in the regular-season finale would lead to him using the press much more during Wednesday’s rematch.
Wyoming took a 47-34 lead with 14:49 left in the game on a three-point play by James.
Lobo junior Carlton Bragg, who had 22 points and 20 rebounds in Saturday’s loss, hit a bucket with 14:17 left in the game cut it to 11 points, but then picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 13:54 remaining.
That’s when Jackson took over.
He scored 13 of his team-high 26 points in a three-minute stretch, including two 3-pointers and a three-point play, giving UNM a 49-47 lead with 9:44 remaining.
Wyoming would not lead again; the Lobos scored 51 second-half points.
Jackson had a postseason stat line that Lobo legends are made of: 26 points, seven free throws, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Four Lobos ended up with double-digit points, but none hurt the Cowboys quite like Jackson.
“I thought they gave us a tremendous blow early and pushed us really to the point of elimination,” Weir said. “And thankfully we were able to kind of bounce back, finish the game the way we wanted and get a victory and move on.”
RECORD: Senior Anthony Mathis was 1-for-13 from the field, though his one make was a 3-pointer that gives him a school-record 103 on the season. Kevin Henry’s 102 in the 1998-99 season was the previous record.
UP NEXT: The Lobos went 0-2 in the regular season against Utah State — a 71-55 loss in Logan, Utah, and a 68-66 home loss to the Aggies in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit. The game in Albuquerque included a blown call for a back-court violation against UNM in the final minute with the Lobos leading. The league later publicly acknowledged the call was wrong.
The Aggies almost swept the league’s coaches and media awards this week with Player of the Year (Sam Merrill), Coach of the Year (Craig Smith) and Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year (Neemias Queta).
One year ago, UNM’s road to the Mountain West tournament championship game included a win against Wyoming followed by a win against Utah State.
Box score: NEW MEXICO 78, WYOMING 68