Makuach Maluach still hasn’t received the memo.
Games like Sunday in the Pit, when the UNM Lobos are 22-point favorites and trail at halftime after two starters were suspended before the game and fans are booing as the team walks up the ramp to the locker room are supposed to end in disaster.
But, instead of jumping on the panic train en route to the sort of outcome the program has suffered with regularity in the game before Christmas the past 20 years, Maluach had a very simple mindset.
“Everyone’s here for a reason,” Maluach said. “We’re basketball players at the end of the day.”
Fortunately for the Lobos, an inspired second-half defensive energy and five starters scoring in double figures allowed the Lobos to overcome a sluggish start and the loss of two stars and manage a 107-88 win over Houston Baptist in front of an announced Dreamstyle Arena crowd of 10,423 on Sunday afternoon.
The win pushed the Lobos record to 12-2 overall and 9-0 at home this season, where they wrap up nonconference play Dec. 29 against UC Davis.
Prior to the game, the Journal confirmed usual starters Carlton Bragg and J.J. Caldwell have been suspended from the team indefinitely. While UNM released a statement after the Journal report confirming the two would not be with the team, the university and head coach Paul Weir would not confirm what the suspensions are for, how long they will last or when they learned of the incidents that led to the suspensions. The Journal has, however, confirmed that each player is suspended for different matters.
In their place, Zane Martin started at point guard and Corey Manigault started at forward. The duo combined for 40 points on 16-of-19 shooting to go along with six assists for Martin.
“I met Zane in high school,” Manigault said. “We from the same side — the East Coast. We just went in there with the same mindset. We blocked out everything and doing what we got to do to get this win.”
But it wasn’t as easy as just rolling the ball out on the court and the talented Lobo roster plugging in players as though nothing happened.
HBU (0-10) hit 8-of-14 first-half 3-pointers, shot 63.3% overall in the half and when a Lobos missed shot and nobody getting back on defense led to a wide-open layup at the first-half buzzer to put the Huskies up 48-46, fans in the Pit poured boos down on the court — some for fans, others for officials.
But things changed in the second half.
After falling behind by as many as six early in the second half, UNM went on a 22-2 run to close the door on any thoughts of an upset loss. And while the Lobos’ 61-second half points were nice, much of the turnaround centered around six second-half steals and holding HBU to just 1-of-10 3-point shooting in the final 20 minutes — including seeing HBU starting point guard Jalon Gates go from hitting six first-half 3s to just one in the second half. Gates scored a game-high 30, 11 in the second half.
“I think the obvious reasons (suspensions and Christmas break among them) that anybody would talk about or why someone would be sluggish or not sluggish (played a part),” Weir said of the poor first-half performance. “Somewhere in that, and what the percentage of all it is I don’t know, a kid made a lot of 3s in the first half and didn’t make very many in the second half. And sometimes when guys are making shots on the other end especially the ones he was making, it deflates you a little bit. I thought of the second half obviously those shots weren’t going in and I thought maybe deflated them a little bit and maybe made us seem a little bit more encouraged.”
Weir said any questions about Bragg and Caldwell’s suspensions could be directed to Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez and he wouldn’t elaborate.
Maluach, who had a season-high 19 points, three steals and two blocked shots, said in the absence of teammates, it isn’t so much about the need to step up, but just continue doing your role on the team.
“You might say, ‘Oh, you had 19 points so you took a step,'” Maluach said. “But I had the ball. I was open. I shot it. They went in. That’s it. Another day.”
Manigault acknowledged that there are some people who will look at the suspensions and the poor first half as a possible pitfall to derail the team.
“That’s what people are hoping for, but we’re not going to go like that,” Manigault said. “We’re still a team. We still care for each other. … We’re going to keep together. We’re going to keep moving.”