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Vegas Vance leads Lobos past San Jose State in MWC Tournament

New Mexico’s Vance Jackson shoots as San Jose State’s Christian Anigwe defends during the first half on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The grin was back. And so, too, was the growing legend of ‘Vegas Vance’ in Pit West.

UNM junior forward Vance Jackson scored 26 points, grabbed 12 rebounds on Wednesday to help carry the No. 7 seeded UNM Lobos to a comfortable 79-66 win over No. 10 San Jose State in the opening round of the Mountain West tournament in the Thomas & Mack Center.

“I don’t want to lose,” Jackson said matter-of-factly when asked what it is about March — about the Mountain West tournament in particular — that seems to bring out the best of him.

“I don’t like losing. I feel at this point our back is against the wall as a team, and we want to just keep moving forward.”

As for the ‘Vegas Vance’ nickname?

“I do like that name,” he said with the same mischievous grin now three Mountain West teams are sick of seeing in this tournament.

One year ago, Jackson became the only player in the 20-year history of the Mountain West to earn an all-tournament team selection without advancing to at least the semifinal round of the event when he averaged 25.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.5 made 3-pointers in a first round win over Wyoming and a quarterfinal loss to Utah State — the team now awaiting the Lobos in Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

On Wednesday, the Lobos (19-13) used a huge first-half scoring run of 21-0 to grab hold of the game from the mistake-prone, cold-shooting Spartans (7-24).

But UNM’s 45-29 halftime lead looked a little shaky when the Spartans started the second half with a 7-0 scoring run with less than two minutes gone by after the break, cutting the lead to 45-36, leading to some uneasy feelings among the couple thousand Lobo fans in attendance (UNM easily had Wednesday’s largest traveling fan base, as it often has in the tournament’s history).

While SJSU was surging, the Lobos’ first eight possessions of the second half resulted in five turnovers, 0-for-5 shooting and zero points.

Then, Jackson said he just felt like the potential finality of this week took over.

Starting with a layup and foul (he also hit the free throw for a three-point play) with 15:48 showing on the clock and continuing for a 4-minute, 9-second span until another three-point play with 11:36 showing on the clock, Jackson scored 14 consecutive Lobos points, putting UNM back up 59-42 in the process all with a grin and a hand in the air signaling for Lobo fans to give him more.

“We kind of have these competitions how many 3-pointers you can make in a row and different things,” Lobos coach Paul Weir said after the game when asked about Jackson’s hot shooting game. “And before we left (the team’s last practice in Albuquerque), he won. I think he had 15, 16 in a row at one point. And today during (morning) shoot-around he was up to 14 in a row. He’s in a groove, shooting the ball well.”

Jackson wasn’t alone, of course.

Makuach Maluach had 22 points and seven rebounds and the Lobos were 14-of-14 from the free-throw line while out-rebounding the Spartans 42-33, which helped overcome a 21-turnover game that saw the Spartans avoid total embarrassment by converting those turnovers into 24 points (UNM had just 10 points off SJSU’s 16 turnovers).

The Spartans got 22 points from sophomore Seneca Knight, including 12 in a somewhat frantic final six minutes, that was largely negated by Maluach scoring eight points in the final stretch.

As for Jackson, San Jose State coach Jean Prioleau said this time of year, special players seem to have special games.

“Vegas Vance? I like that,” Prioleau said. “I don’t think it’s so much Vance Jackson, I just think when you’re playing at this level, when it’s late in March, there’s probably someone that will probably step up and have a moment. It could be two, three, five, seven, 10 minutes of a moment that can carry a team. And it just happened to be Vance Jackson.”

Jackson and the Lobos now get a rematch with the same Utah State team they upset on Saturday at home in the Pit as eight-point underdogs. The game tips off at 6 p.m. local time in Las Vegas (7 p.m. MT) and will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.

The winner of that game advances to Friday’s semifinal round with a potential Pit West showdown with Nevada and former Lobo coach Steve Alford.

BOX SCORE: New Mexico 79, San Jose State 66

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