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‘Vegas Vance’ is coming on like gangbusters for New Mexico

New Mexico’s Vance Jackson, left, readies to shoot a 3-pointer during the Lobos’ victory over Fresno State on Tuesday night in the Pit. He’s had back-to-back double-doubles for the Lobos. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

It took a little while, but “Vegas Vance” is back.

In case that message hadn’t yet sunk in yet around the Mountain West Conference, it was hammered home with 4:49 left in the first half of Tuesday’s University of New Mexico men’s basketball win over the Fresno State Bulldogs.

In March in Las Vegas, Nevada, UNM junior forward Vance Jackson was so dominant for two games he became the first player in the 20-year history of the league to earn all-tournament team honors with his team not at least advancing to the semifinals.

That version of Jackson, which was absent from the court for UNM the first dozen games or so, seems to have finally made its way back.

Jackson has posted back-to-back 25 point/13 rebound double-doubles (in Tuesday’s win, it was actually 29 points) and after reaching double figures in scoring only twice in the first 12 games of the season, has done so in each of the past five games.

And one move late in the first half Tuesday might be the epitome of why opposing coaches are now so concerned.

With the Bulldogs leading 31-28, Jackson caught the ball in a usual spot – just beyond the 3-point line on the wing. And, as the scouting report every opposing team has on him dictates, a Bulldogs defender closed out on him hard to block the 3-point shot he appeared to start taking.

Instead, Jackson pump faked, put the ball on the court and drove to the rim for as demonstrative a dunk in traffic as he’s had all season.

“Yeah, I got that in my bag,” Jackson said with a grin after the game, trying as best he could to play it smooth when asked if this was a newfound assertiveness he was showing. “… The sky’s the limit right now.”

Jackson is a potential matchup problem every night because despite being 6-foot-9, is primarily a 3-point shooter (he’s attempted more 3-pointers than 2-pointers in each of this three college seasons – one at Connecticut and two at UNM). But it’s when he couples that outside game with an aggressiveness at the rim that makes him dangerous.

Weir thinks a lot of the early struggles were as simple as a deeper 3-point line this season.

“I don’t think it was just Vance,” Weir said. “As much as defensively we’ve talked about it (and how UNM has chosen to defend the 3-point line this season), I think there’s a lot of offensive players who are adjusting to a new line as well and I think those things take a little bit of time. I don’t think that eliminates good shooters from being good shooters, it just takes a little bit of time adjusting some things.”

Jackson’s struggles, though, were obvious, and wore on him and some fans, alike.

So was a change in the starting lineup ever a consideration?

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t thought about,” Weir said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t talked about in a lot of different ways. But did it ever get to the point of me genuinely thinking let’s pull him from the starting lineup or let’s do something different? I never really got to that point.”

Instead, Jackson said he just kept showing up to the gym and working his way through a rough patch.

“Credit to him for not holding his head (down) and getting in the gym and staying with it, keeping the confidence in himself,” said teammate JaQuan Lyle. “Now the shots are falling. We all knew that eventually they would. Now they are.”

Jackson hit 10-of-46 (21.7%) 3-pointers in the Lobos’ first 12 games and averaged just 6.2 points per game. In the past five games, he’s averaging 18.4 points and is 13-of-27 (48.1%) from 3-point range.

Weir said the aggressiveness with attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line coupled with the obvious 3-point threat he’s always been is paying dividends.

For Jackson, he says very little has actually changed in the past few weeks.

“I’ve been the same player since the first game of the season, I just wasn’t making shots,” Jackson said. “I just kept my head up. Coaches gave me positive energy, and my teammates. Eventually, it was going to drop.”

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