Lobos season ends in emotional loss to Utah State - Albuquerque Journal

Lobos season ends in emotional loss to Utah State

New Mexico’s Vance Jackson, center reacts after Utah State won 75-70 in Thursday’s Mountain West Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against the Lobos in Las Vegas, Nev. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The ending seemed to sum up the entire journey.

A roller-coaster season had a roller-coaster final day — and the UNM Lobos showed to be both worthy of preseason hype that dubbed them as a possible Mountain West title contender, and the midseason criticism after on- and off-court player drama that led some fans to openly criticize players and call for a change of the team’s head coach.

Thursday, before their quarterfinal showdown even tipped off, one Lobo player was put on a plane back to Albuquerque for undisclosed reasons — even to him, apparently.

The Lobos fell behind 18-5 early, led by as many as 11 with 9:38 left in the game, then faltered down the stretch as Utah State star Sam Merrill scored 29 points to end the Lobos’ tumultuous season, 75-70, in the Mountain West tournament.

“They were um, they were really good,” Lobos coach Paul Weir said in an emotional post game press conference in which he stopped to compose himself on several occasions while sitting next to players Vance Jackson and Corey Manigault.

“We kind of went back and forth there between man and zone there late to stop Merrill. I couldn’t coach us well enough to (get) us to a victory. These guys played their hearts out. Unfortunately I just couldn’t create enough defensive stops down the stretch for us to get the victory.”

The Lobos, the No. 7 seed in the Mountain West tournament for the second consecutive season, again losing to No. 2 Utah State in the quarterfinal round, end the 2019-20 season with a 19-14 overall record in Weir’s third season as coach of the program.

Neither Manigault nor Jackson would let their coach take all the blame.

“Just having the greatest coach ever beside me, take me in, actually working with me and things like that,” Maingault said when asked for reflection after his final game as a Lobo. “Just learning from him. Even though he said this game was his fault, we was out there on the floor.”

But the 2019-20 season was about as much on the court as off for the Lobos, and Thursday was no exception.

Thursday afternoon, Vante Hendrix was sent home on a flight to Albuquerque before the game started.

When a Journal reporter posted an update on Twitter that said it was still awaiting an official reason Hendrix was sent home, Hendrix replied to that tweet, writing on his Twitter account, “Waiting to hear what I did, too. But shout-out my dawgs , I know they going hold it down.”

After Thursday’s game, Weir wouldn’t get into specifics about the decision to discipline the high-energy Utah transfer who started playing in December and already had several incidents that led to discipline from his coach.

“Nothing substantial,” Weir said. “Our focus was on us trying to win this game. I didn’t feel his focus was there so I sent him home.”

Asked if Hendrix, a third-year sophomore, would be a Lobo next season, Weir said, “To be determined.”

As for the game itself, after beating the Aggies on Saturday in the Pit to end a five-game skid and then comfortably beating San Jose State in Wednesday’s opening round, the Lobos came out flat, disorganized and seemingly intimidated by the moment.

The Aggies (24-8) jumped out to an 18-5 lead with 14:39 left in the first half and still led 22-9 at about the midway point of the first half when JaQuan Lyle took over, not unlike Jackson had done for a decisive second-half stretch the previous night against San Jose State.

Lyle hit a 3-pointer with 10:03 left, starting a 5:51 stretch in which he scored 16 of UNM’s 18 points, getting the Lobos back in the game.

UNM, which got 20 points from Lyle, 18 from Manigault and 11 from Jackson, built an 11-point lead with under 10 minutes to play.

Then Merrill went off, willing the Aggies back with 11 of his 29 points in a last 5-minute stretch the Lobos couldn’t stop.

“We had it in our hands,’ said Jackson, a junior who later said he can’t think about what his future holds just yet, including whether it will be with UNM. “We just didn’t finish and pull through. Any loss hurts, but this hurts the most because the season is over.”

The Lobos will not play in a postseason game this year, UNM athletic officials confirmed on Thursday.

Lyle was out of the Lobos’ locker room before media was able to interview him.

BOX SCORE: Utah State 75, New Mexico 70

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