In the worst defensive performance of the young season for a Lobos team still being talked about as having one of the best offensive rosters the program has seen in years, it was a defensive stop from a point guard who didn’t make a basket that sealed a 90-80 win for the UNM Lobos over a surprisingly game McNeese State on Saturday afternoon in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit.
With 42 seconds remaining, and the Lobos leading the 19-point underdog Cowboys by just two points at 82-80, McNeese State’s Sha’markus Kennedy dribbled down the left side of Bob King Court toward the basket for a potential tying basket.
Instead, junior point guard J.J. Caldwell stepped in the path of Kennedy’s move to the right, stealing the ball from the senior who was having one of the best games of his career. Caldwell then passed down court to Lobo senior forward Corey Manigault, whose dunk with 41 seconds left gave the Lobos the breathing room needed to end the upset bid and improve to 4-0 heading into the toughest four-game stretch of UNM’s season.
“I knew the dude was going to go right because he’s a right handed player, so I just wanted to jump in front of him,” said Caldwell. “He was at halfcourt. That’s basically out of bounds. I just wanted to anticipate that and finish the game so we could get out of there.”
Caldwell had zero points on 0-for-1 shooting, but added 10 assists and four steals in 21 minutes played.
Five Lobos scored in double figures, led by Manigault’s career-high 24 points and career-best free throw performance of 12-of-16. His fellow post player, Carlton Bragg, struggled mightily making shots (3-for-11, with several misses being right at the rim), but like Caldwell made up for it in other ways with a season-best 18 rebounds, two blocked shots and five steals. UNM had 17 steals in the game.
McNeese State (1-4) got 26 points from Kennedy and 24 from junior guard Dru Kuxhausen, who hit 7-of-13 3-point attempts and was, intentionally so, a thorn in the side of the Lobos all afternoon. Kuxhausen would celebrate regularly in front of the Lobos bench, get physical frequently with visibly frustrated Lobo players and eventually fouled out when he was called for an intentional foul and a technical for hitting JaQuan Lyle from behind on a breakaway layup that ended with both players in the stands and inciting a near bench-clearing brawl.
“He did (try and frustrate the Lobos),” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “He did it right in front of our bench. I kind of tried to move him on down. The kid played well. He was excited. It was a game in the Pit and he was playing well. He played his heart out, so I want to give him credit. I think he just kind of felt in the moment. Their team felt like they could get one, so their team was really excited feeling like maybe they could get a win, and I like it. I’m glad that we kind of got punched in the mouth a little bit because, obviously, the games here going forward will be a little bit different than the ones we just had.”
The Lobos play at 3-0 UTEP on Tuesday and at 1-2 New Mexico State on Thursday.
On Saturday, they scored 90 points for the fourth time in four games, making up for a defense that allowed McNeese State to shoot 50.9 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point range (13-of-29).
“Defensively, quite honestly, we just couldn’t get zero (Kuxhausen) out of rhythm at any point and he just kept making really big shots,” Weir said. “A lot of those, I hope, I’m going to look back (at film) and say we will take most of them as long as they’ve been challenge pretty well.”
FAMILIAR FACE: Lobo legend Michael Cooper was honored on the court during a first half timeout with the announced crowd of 10,501 cascading him with a loud chorus of “Coooooop!”
Tuesday: UNM at UTEP, 7 p.m., 770 AM/94.5 FM, conferenceusa.com/watch (pay site)