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As season turns, Lobos lose part of their identity

San Diego State forward Matt Mitchell shoots between JaQuan Lyle (5) and another Lobo during the No. 4-ranked Aztecs’ 82-59 win Tuesday night. (Denis Poroy/Associated Press)

Walking off of Bob King Court on Jan. 11, the UNM Lobos had a pretty good sense of who they were.

Yes, there were warts. And yes, there were, and still are, the agonizingly vague and lack of direct answers from the team, athletic department and university as a whole about whether suspended point guard J.J. Caldwell will ever don the Cherry and Silver again, but the Lobos knew a few things that day as they walked up the Pit ramp, 84-78 winners over the Air Force Falcons.

They knew they were 15-3 overall.

They were 4-1 in Mountain West play.

They were physical enough to score and compete with most anyone in the paint.

They led the nation in free throws and free throws made.

They were a team that attacked the rim to get fouled, score or open up the offense.

Most important, the UNM Lobos knew that day who they were.

They had an identity.

Since that walk back up the Pit ramp, and the DWI checkpoint arrest later that night of Carlton Bragg, the Lobos have been in a tailspin. That was painfully evident as ever Tuesday night in Viejas Arena when the No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs made the Lobo offense look unsure of itself at every turn in the second half. The 82-59 Lobos loss revealed UNM is incapable of competing when it can’t be competitive in the paint – either scoring at the rim or drawing fouls.

“Their physicality around the rim was just something we could not find a way to offset in any way,” UNM coach Paul Weir said of the Aztecs. And later, the coach conceded his team now simply can’t compete with the likes of SDSU when the outside game isn’t opening up things inside.

“If we’re not making 3s, it’s just really hard for us to open up the floor (down low for post-ups) for, right now, JaQuan (Lyle) and Corey (Manigault),” Weir said.

The Lobos are 2-6 since that Air Force game and it’s clear the offense has been forced to change its approach.

UNM attempted more than 22 3-pointers twice in the first 18 games. They’ve now done it six times in the past eight games since Bragg’s dismissal.

Entering the Jan. 15 Colorado State game, here’s how the Lobos’ scoring breakdown ranked nationally (percentage of the team’s scoring by 3s, 2s and free throws):

• 3-point scoring: 22.3% (331st out of 353 teams)

• 2-point scoring: 54.8% (61st)

• Free throw scoring: 22.9% (20th)

And in the eight games since, which include two blowout wins over San Jose State and Wyoming:

• 3-point scoring: 32.5%

• 2-point scoring: 51.3%

• Free throw scoring: 16.7%

The most glaring dropoff is at the free throw line. The Lobos simply can’t get there anymore against the better teams in the league.

Tuesday, the Lobos were 7-of-9 at the free throw line with the first attempt coming with 5:24 left in the game. By then, SDSU led 67-44.

As good as Corey Manigault has been at times, including a career-high scoring night just Saturday against Wyoming, teams are now going to pack it inside against the Lobos, stop Manigault and wait for anyone else to beat them from the outside.

And for now, the Lobos don’t seem to be capable of doing anything about that.

ON THE TECHNICALS: Manigault was ejected from Tuesday’s game in San Diego with two technical fouls. He also had a double-technical foul with K.J. Feagin in the Jan. 29 loss to the Aztecs in the Pit.

He was T’d up early Tuesday after a dunk for talking trash and again in the second half after he was fouled and was talking again with several Aztecs. Referee Mike Reed then walked over to Weir to warn he better get Manigault off the court, which Weir was already in the process of doing as Vance Jackson was sitting at the scorer’s table to check in, but needed Manigault to shoot his free throws first.

Manigault hit one, missed the second, then almost immediately said something else to get ejected.

Weir said he wasn’t sure what Manigault said to get either technical.

“Credit to Feagin, credit to San Diego State …,” Weir said. “… Every free throw, there’s an arm around an official. They’re talking. It’s a credit to them. That’s why they’re a great basketball team. Corey didn’t have the maturity to handle that in the best ways.”

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