But Wednesday night was a huge win for the UNM Lobos.
Using the height they had hoped would be more of a weapon this season, the Lobos ended a six-game losing streak by outrebounding the Trailblazers 50-39, outscoring them 46-22 in the paint and blocking a near program-record 11 shots en route to a much-needed 72-63 road win in St. George, Utah.
“Sometimes, it helps when you don’t have a 7-footer or a 7-foot-3 guy down in the paint trying to shoot over,” Lobo senior Makuach Maluach, who scored 12 points, said rather matter-of-factly when asked about the relief to be playing with a size advantage again.
The Lobos, playing in a rare January nonconference game that was only made official 48 hours before it was played, got back in the win column just hours after senior guard Keith McGee announced he had opted out of the balance of the 2020-21 season due to mental health concerns brought on by being relocated out of state due to COVID-19.
With all that was going on, Lobos coach Paul Weir acknowledged Wednesday’s game, and result, was very much needed.
“I didn’t want to sit around and mope all week (before the team’s Saturday game at UNLV) about where we were at,” Weir said. “I wanted these guys to know I’m all in. We’re still all in. Let’s go find a basketball game and let’s keep going.”
UNM improves to 4-6 overall (0-6 in Mountain West play), but those six losses came against three teams ranked in the top 25 nationally in average height — Nevada (20th), Boise State (23rd) and Utah State (25th). The Lobos’ confidence near the rim was visibly dwindling in those games and seemed non-existent by the end of last Friday’s 36-point loss to Utah State and their 7-foot center, Neemias Queta.
For the first half Wednesday, the Lobos were still rushing and missing easy shots at the rim — something Weir said assistant coach Scott Padgett, a former NBA big man, nearly lost his mind about by halftime.
“I think we still had some Neemias Queta demons there at the beginning of the game,” Weir said. “We missed a ton of bunnies around the rim. But I thought as the game went on, we were much better. We were finishing to the rim as opposed to away from the rim.”
A back-and-forth first half was opened up in the second half with a 20-4 UNM run, capped by the Lobos scoring 14 straight points and taking a 47-32 lead.
In the stretch, freshman point guard Isaiah Marin scored eight of his season-high 13 points and hit a pair of 3-pointers. He came off the bench again after shooting 0-for-9 in two starts against Utah State.
UNM was led on the night by a stat-stuffing performance from 6-6 guard Saquan Singleton, who had a season-high 17 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots and a steal in 36 minutes. Maybe best of all for the junior who entered the game shooting 57.1% from the free throw line was his 7-of-10 showing at the charity stripe.
“Whatever coach needs me to do,” Singleton said after the game. “I just go out there and play my hardest. I didn’t really show it in the previous game. We needed a game like this to get back our swag. And I think we’re ready to roll, now.”
UNM hit 16-of-23 from the line (69.6%), including 13 of the last 14 to ice the game in the final four and a half minutes.
And, yes, the swag and the smiles for one night appeared to be back, even if it was against first-year Division I member and WAC newcomer Dixie State (4-3).
It was a much-needed result for a team that hasn’t hidden its frustration of late about having to live seven weeks out of a suitcase, relocated out of New Mexico due to a public health order that won’t allow them to practice in their own state.
McGEE OUT: To read more on McGee’s decision to opt-out, CLICK HERE.
His statement posted on social media on Wednesday afternoon read, in part:
“What our team has experienced this year has had a major impact on my mental and physical well being. My health and safety is more important than the game I love right now. To my teammates and coaches, you guys have been a great support system. Thank you Lobo nation for all the amazing memories these last 3 years.”
Weir noted a decision on McGee’s future, either at UNM or elsewhere as a transfer, has not been made.
UP NEXT: UNM at UNLV on Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/96.3 FM
BOX SCORE: New Mexico 72, Dixie State 63
EMPTYING THE NOTEBOOK: For more notes, quotes, stats, tweets, videos and analysis of Wednesday’s game, read Geoff Grammer’s Emptying the Notebook column.