Sunday wasn’t the first time Carlton Bragg, the tallest player on the court, helped put the Lobos over the top in a game not so much with his dominating rebounding or low-post presence, but with a soft-shooting touch at the free-throw line.
Make no mistake, Bragg did all those other things, too, in a 72-63 win over the Montana Grizzlies in front of an announced Sunday afternoon holiday crowd of 10,503 in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit. In fact, he had arguably the stat line of his college career with 20 points, 14 rebounds, an assist and two blocked shots. He also drew seven fouls, hit his first 3-pointer in more than three years and posted a team-best plus-22 scoring margin in the minutes he was on the floor.
But in a game in which it seemed as though no Lobo could hit the only shot in basketball without a defender, it was Bragg’s 9-for-11 showing at the free-throw line that helped the Lobos get the win over the defensive-minded Grizzlies to improve to 7-2 on the season heading into Wednesday’s rare early-December Mountain West Conference opener against the Boise State Broncos.
“To have a big of his size that you feel confident with every time he goes to the free-throw line is just a great benefit to our program and our team,” said UNM coach Paul Weir. “And today he was finishing around the rim terrific so, hopefully that will continue to kind of go forward.”
The Lobos hit 14 of their final 16 free throws (62.9%) on Sunday after an abysmal 8-of-19 (42.1%) start to a game they were largely getting what they wanted offensively against an over-sized Montana (3-5) team that was forced to foul (29 times to be exact).
The Lobos dominated the glass with a 43-31 rebounding advantage, including 11-4 on the offensive boards. They had a season low nine turnovers. They had 15 assists on 22 made baskets. They scored 1.11 points per possession, the most of any Montana opponent, including power conference opponents Arkansas, Stanford and Washington. And they got to the free-throw line 35 times to just seven for Montana.
And yet, the Lobos found themselves trailing the Grizzlies 50-49 with 8:59 left in the game after a Kendal Manuel 3-pointer.
Then, Bragg took over.
The 6-foot-10 power forward grabbed an offensive rebound with 8:35 remaining and quickly drew his fifth foul from a Montana defender, leading to him calmly sinking two free throws to regain the lead at 51-50.
On the ensuing possession, he blocked a Mack Anderson layup, grabbed rebound No. 10 then drew his sixth foul with 7:56 remaining. Again, two calm free throws and a 53-50 lead.
A Montana turnover then led to a JaQuan Lyle 3-pointer.
That 7-0 scoring run for the Lobos in a 62-second span turned the would-be upset into UNM’s fifth win in the Pit this season in as many tries.
“It was just me bringing energy to the team,” Bragg said. “Just doing the hard things and just picking up guys, bringing my energy.”
He was one of three Lobos to score in double figures, along with Lyle (16 points) and Zane Martin (11). Point guard J.J. Caldwell added five assists and three steals and sophomore Tavian Percy added quality minutes off the bench in the first half when the Lobos were struggling to find their way on both ends of the floor.
Montana was led by 25 points from All-Big Sky Conference senior guard Sayeed Pridgett and 16 off the bench from freshman Josh Vasquez, who hit four 3s.
Weir, after asked, acknowledged his team might have still been shaking some of the four-game, nine-day road trip it had away from Albuquerque (it spent just 36 hours in Albuquerque between Nov. 18 and early Wednesday morning on a trip that including road games at rivals UTEP and NMSU and two games last week in Brooklyn, N.Y.).
“I think the free-throw line, even those early shots were air balls — we just didn’t have the legs or the juice I would have wanted,” Weir said. “I don’t think it was a mental thing or an engagement thing. … we just didn’t have a lot of burst tonight.”
Added Bragg, with a big smile, “I don’t wanna say we were tired, but we were getting there,” Bragg said. “We just gotta grind through it, you know. This is the life we chose.”
BOX SCORE: New Mexico 72, Montana 63
UP NEXT: Wednesday, Boise State at UNM, 7 p.m., Stadium (online), 770 AM/94.5 FM