U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Lobos have gone from spending half a season giving hope to fans and half a season of disappointing them to now squeezing it all into one game.
The Lobos fell behind big early, then played uncharacteristically high-energy defense, had a freshman and walk-on sophomore take the place of veterans continuing to struggle or show poor effort (one was even left home from the trip altogether for discipline). They led late, dived for loose balls, then couldn’t score in the final 5 minutes, 4 seconds and again had horrible late-game execution.
In the end, the Air Force Falcons scored the final eight points on Wednesday night in Clune Arena, including a Sid Tomes 3-pointer with 27 seconds remaining, for a 60-58 win over the free-falling Lobos, who have now lost five in a row and 10 of their last 12 games.
After the game, after praising some of his players’ effort and defense at times, UNM coach Paul Weir made it clear the Lobos (17-13, 6-11 Mountain West) are not yet waving the white flag on the once-promising season that now could see the team drop to as low as the No. 9 seed in next week’s conference tournament.
“I wasn’t trying to make it a moral victory,” Weir said. “I was excited for the guys who played well tonight. Unfortunately some other guys just aren’t playing great for us. As much as it is about people thinking maybe we’re playing for next year (by playing younger guys big minutes the past two games), it’s not. We want to win and those other guys gave us the best chance to win tonight.
“That’s all we’re trying to do, and we’re going to do the same thing on Saturday (against Utah State) — just put, literally, the five guys out there that can help us win the basketball game.”
UNM’s loss means it is tied for seventh place in the MWC standings with Fresno State, which hosts last-place Wyoming on Saturday. A Lobos win or a Fresno State loss would lock up for the Lobos the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, playing the No. 10 seed in next Wednesday’s opening round.
Air Force, meanwhile, improved to 11-18 and 5-12 in league play. A Saturday scenario of a Fresno State win, a UNM loss and an Air Force road win at Colorado State would drop UNM, the preseason No. 3 pick that once had a 15-3 record overall and was 4-1 in league play, down to the No. 9 seed in the 11-team league.
The Lobos played without sophomore guard Vante Hendrix, who was left in Albuquerque for unspecified disciplinary issues, his second consecutive missed game. He was seen in the nationally-televised Feb. 18 loss to Nevada taking his jersey off and throwing it behind the team bench when angry about being taken out of the game in the first half.
“I think I’ve said before, I’m still learning how to coach him,” Weir said.
When pressed for more details about Hendrix’s discipline, Weir just added, “Still learning how to coach him. Still deciding if I want to coach him. That’s probably the best way to put it.”
The Lobos played all eight scholarship players they had available on Wednesday and walk-on Jordan Arroyo, who, for the second straight game, played significant minutes in the post. Starting big man Corey Manigault’s slump continued with just 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting, 3 rebounds and two turnovers in 16 minutes.
In Arroyo’s 23 minutes, the walk-on had two points, 5 rebounds, a block and a steal.
A 15-0 Air Force run early put the Falcons up 17-5 with 13 minutes left in the opening half. Then the Lobos played inspired defense, used a pair of 9-0 runs and led 33-28 at the break.
Air Force had a 45-44 lead when Vance Jackson (16 points) hit two of his four 3-pointers and JaQuan Lyle (team highs with 18 points, 8 rebounds and six assists) hit two of his five 3-pointers. The Lobos led 58-52 with 5:04 to play.
But UNM missed its final seven shots, and the Falcons celebrated their final home game of the season with a win.
Air Force had four starters score in double figures and had 20 assists on 23 made field goals.
UNM shot 35.7% from the field and had 17 points off 17 AFA turnovers, but were out-rebounded 42-32, 12-5 on the offensive boards.
BOX SCORE: Air Force 60, New Mexico 58
UP NEXT: Saturday, Utah State at UNM, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/96.3.FM
EMPTYING THE NOTEBOOK: More notes, analysis, videos and more from the game, CLICK HERE.