While most of his Lobo players were on the court going through their final warmups before the rather large game for the program, his starting wing – 6-foot-7 Makuach Maluach – was still in the locker room.
The junior, whose 14 points the night before led the Lobos in a loss to No. 18 Auburn, had been up much of the previous night and early that morning, like many other college students, wrapping up a major final exam project for a business marketing class that was due that day.
The week before, about 18 hours after his would-be game-tying half-court heave was ruled to have left his hand a split second too late in a loss at UTEP, senior guard JaQuan Lyle was sitting in a Las Cruces hotel lobby next the team’s student success director taking a test while most of his teammates were catching a nap in their rooms between practices and film sessions.
“To gut through this time – we’re healthy, we’re in one piece, we got some wins, we’ve got to stay on the academics,” said UNM head coach Paul Weir after his team beat Wisconsin Tuesday before they caught their cross-country flight back home to Albuquerque with one thing in mind: They got to sleep in their own beds and put the toughest stretch of their schedule behind them.
“Let’s get to Thanksgiving and hit reset a little bit and learn from what we accomplished and also learn what we failed at and take it forward,” said Weir.
The Lobos are 6-2 heading into Sunday afternoon’s home tilt against the Montana Grizzlies (3-4) and then the first two Mountain West Conference games of the season – vs. Boise State on Wednesday and at Wyoming on Saturday.
The Lobos spent about 36 hours in Albuquerque between when they left for El Paso on Nov. 18 and when their flight landed and they got back to their homes early Wednesday morning. They spent seven of nine nights on the road and twice got back to Albuquerque after midnight (a bus ride home from Las Cruces on Nov. 21 and on Tuesday).
“We were just talking about that in the locker room,” UNM junior point guard J.J. Caldwell said shortly after the Wisconsin win. “Happy flight. We’re ready to get back home to Albuquerque. It feels like we’ve been away from home for like a month.”
And for anyone thinking the travel, especially at a crucial time academically for the players, is something all teams face, consider no UNM team has ever had a regular-season swing of more than four games away from Albuquerque since the 1971-72 Bob King Lobos went 1-4 on a five-game stretch for a tournament in Oregon, followed by losses at Colorado State and Wyoming. But even that stretch had a full week off in Albuquerque between the first three games and the last two.
Since 1991-92, only one other Lobos team even had four-consecutive regular season games away from Albuquerque – that happened in 2011 – and counting the postseason, the last such stretch was at the end of the 2013-14 season when the Lobos finished the regular season on the road at San Diego State, played three games in the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada, then played an NCAA Tournament game in St. Louis.
And what did the Lobos get out of the trip?
They went 2-2 with a road loss at UTEP followed by a big rivalry road win at NMSU in the first week. The next week, they had an embarrassing blowout loss to No. 18 Auburn followed by the Wisconsin win, the program’s first win over a power conference team since December 2013 over the Big East’s Marquette.
And, if you ask them, they are a better team because of it all.
“I think we’ll get back in our groove moving forward starting up from this game,” Caldwell said after the Wisconsin win.
Weir said he hopes the tough stretch made the team better before league play begins.
“It was hard not to look at this as a four-game stretch,” Weir said. “As a coach always you want to talk about the next game. But I think holistically, we looked at our schedule and we had four straight on the road against four tremendous opponents. … It’s been an amazing experience for us”