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Martin endures, Lobo men hold off Air Force

University of New Mexico’s Zane Martin, right, pulls away from Air Force’s A.J. Walker, bottom, late in the second half as Walker dives in an attempt to steal the ball. Martin scored 18 points during the Lobos’ win on Saturday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Zane Martin was coughing.

His chest, he said, was getting tight, as it sometimes does for the Philadelphia native playing in Albuquerque’s elevation.

He was tired.

And in the closing minutes of Saturday’s game in the Pit, he looked toward the Lobos’ bench and waved over to his coaches to be subbed out.

No chance.

After all, with starting point guard and leading scorer JaQuan Lyle having already fouled out, not to mention the team playing its fifth game without former starting point guard but still suspended J.J. Caldwell, the Lobos knew they were going to ride or die with Martin leading the team.

In the final 1:49 of the game, Martin had a block, four points and two assists, including an alley-oop pass to Makuach Maluach for a dunk and an exclamation point alley-oop pass to Carlton Bragg for a dunk with 5 seconds remaining as the Lobos beat Air Force, 84-78, in front of an announced crowd of 11,014 in Dreamstyle Arena — the Pit on Saturday.

“He wasn’t getting subbed, so I think we all just pretended not to hear him,” admitted Lobos coach Paul Weir.

Said Martin, who has been a score-first shooting guard his whole life before this season when forced into a point guard role he’s never played, the way Saturday’s game closed led him to a much-needed sigh of relief.

“I wasn’t frustrated,” he said about his play over the past few weeks with the Lobos as he struggled to string together quality games.

“I just wanted to get that demon in my head that was telling me I was just a shooting guard or a scorer. Stop telling myself that and become more of an all-around player and just prove to everybody I can play point guard.”

Saturday, he finished with 18 points, five assists, two steals, three blocked shots in the win, which moved the Lobos to 15-3 overall and 4-1 in league play while also tying the longest home win streak to start a season for the program in the 21-year existence of the Mountain West. Tthe 2005-06 team was the only other at UNM to start 12-0 at home. It then lost its next home game to BYU.

Martin wasn’t the only Lobo making clutch plays down the stretch, either.

The Lobos had three of their eight blocks in the final 1:49 of the game and also came up with nine steals in the game against an over-sized Air Force team that entered the game ranked No. 3 in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage.

The Falcons (8-9, 2-3 MWC), however, could never get going from deep, shooting 28.6% from the arc (8-of-28), and a lot of that had to do first with the size of the Lobos preventing the Falcons from starting their offense at the rim.

“Their length bothered us and pushed us out,” said Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich. “We took some 3s that were deeper than we normally take, and that was due to them. They were bigger at all five positions and their guards are big. They forced us away a little bit, and that was definitely a factor.”

Weir has been questioned plenty this season for his defensive strategy aimed at protecting his big men from foul trouble by keeping the ball out of the paint first, even at the expense of yielding more space on the perimeter for teams to shoot 3s. He said Saturday played out as he had hoped.

“They made some baskets down the stretch I’d like to have back, but for 36, 37 minutes, I thought it might have been our best defense since Wisconsin,” Weir said, referring to UNM’s 59-50 victory in Brooklyn, N.Y., over a Badgers team that is 10-6.

“… I thought if we took away a lot of the post play and stuff around the rim, then we would just use our length and challenge their shots. We have a lot of size, and I think that’s part of the advantage for us of giving (teams more opportunity to shoot) 3s. We have long, athletic guys kind of challenging those shots as opposed to maybe some smaller players.”

Air Force, who was coming off a 19-point win over preseason MWC favorite Utah State, had four players score in double figures, including a game-high 26 points from Lavelle Scottie, but never led since midway through the first half.

The Lobos had five guys in double figures, led by Lyle with 20 points, four assists and nine drawn fouls. But five of his turnovers were tied to three offensive fouls, and he fouled out for the first time as a Lobo.

Manigault added 16 points and three blocked shots.

BOX SCORE: UNM 84, Air Force 78

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