EL PASO – The UNM Lobos defended. And they rebounded. And they did many of the things that were still the biggest question marks surrounding the team after its four home wins to open the season.
But that offense the Lobos showed off the past couple weeks that averaged 93.0 points per game, ninth best in the country before Tuesday, apparently didn’t get on the bus and travel with the team down south to UTEP.
The Lobos missed 11 free throws and 30 shots from the field, including several layups in the final minutes on Tuesday night, falling to the physical UTEP Miners, 66-63, in front of an energized announced crowd of 6,171 in the Don Haskins Center.
“I thought their defense was really good,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “Obviously we left some, gosh, we left some points around the rim and some layups and left some points at the free throw line as well on our end. But I don’t want to take away from UTEP’s defense. I thought they were very physical and played us really well, especially to start the game.”
As ugly and out of sync as the UNM (4-1) offense looked, including missing its first seven shots of the game and missing four layups in the final seven minutes, the game was still very much in question in the final minute thanks in large part to UNM playing, easily, its best defense of the season.
“I told them whether we won or lost this game, we needed to play well and we needed to improve in certain areas,” Weir said. “We did a great job of getting to the free throw line. We didn’t make them, unfortunately. We out-rebounded them. I thought we had some good defensive possessions, which we really haven’t shown yet. We needed a few more stops down the stretch, but I actually thought today was a step. It sucks to lose. There’s no doubt about it. But I thought we showed a lot of things today.”
A Zane Martin dunk put the Lobos up 63-62 with 53.8 seconds left in the game.
But on the ensuing Miners possession, guard Jordan Lathon was able to drive to his right and pull up and hit a contested 17-foot- jumper, putting UTEP up 64-63.
“He went right, unfortunately, but he did miss that 2-point challenged jumper I think a couple possession before (with 2:22 left in the game),” Weir said. “I thought our defense wasn’t bad (on Lathon’s shot). … He’s a dynamic player going to that hand.”
The Lobos, with the ball in senior guard JaQuan Lyle’s hands, had a disjointed final possession that ended with a missed Makuach Maluach 3-point attempt with 3 seconds remaining.
UTEP’s Bryson Williams, the team’s leading scorer who was held to nine points, then stretched the lead to 66-63 with two free throws with 1.9 seconds left. UNM drew up a play, inbounding to halfcourt to Lyle, who dribbled and took a step to his left, sinking a halfcourt 3-pointer that would have forced overtime, had it not clearly still been in his hands as the buzzer sounded.
Lyle had 19 points, but shot 4-of-12 from the field and 1-of-6 from the 3-point line, one of three Lobos in double figures.
UTEP was led by Daryl Edwards’ 20 points with three others scoring in double figures.
UNM shot 38.8 percent in the game and was held to 0.851 points per possession, the first time this season they were under 1.07 points per possession. On defense, they held the Miners to 42.9 percent shooting and 0.904 points per possession, but UTEP also took seven more shots thanks in part to 18 UNM turnovers.
The Lobos, plagued by rebounding struggles in their first four games, out-rebounded UTEP 36-31.
But the guard play, thought to be UNM’s strength while UTEP’s was in the frontcourt, was advantage Miners.
“That guard play, particularly in the second half, I thought was really good for them and I think is a very underrated part of their team,” Weir said.
The Lobos now head to part two of their rivalry road trip, a Thursday night matchup against the New Mexico State Aggies (2-2), who lost last week to UTEP 65-50.
BRAGG’S INJURY: Carlton Bragg left Tuesday’s game with a right knee injury. Weir said he didn’t know Bragg’s status moving forward.