Lobo senior Maluach faces bittersweet ‘home’ finale

Lobo Makuach Maluach, left, reacts after a dunk against New Mexico State as UNM teammate Anthony Mathis, right, looks on during action in 2017. Maluach has been rock-steady for New Mexico in his years since. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

There were 16 minutes, 32 seconds showing on the Pit clock in the first half of the first game of the Paul Weir era on Nov. 11, 2017.

In what was essentially a warm-up game against NAIA Northern New Mexico – an introduction of sorts for Lobo fans to the program’s new coach and a roster of so many new players after a mass exodus the previous spring – one of the less heralded of those Lobo newcomers nervously walked up to the scorer’s table to check into a game that was already well in hand for the home team.

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” says Lobo senior guard Makuach Maluach. “I remember my first time checking in – I was nervous. Super nervous. And time has flown by so quick.”

The rail-thin wing originally from South Sudan who was recruited out of a prep school in Sydney, Australia, that Lobo fans knew very little about on that November night in 2017 was the ninth UNM player to get in the game. He ended up scoring 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting and had a chase-down block off the backboard on a would-be fast break layup in his Lobos debut.

His name wasn’t mentioned in the Journal’s next-day game recap article until the 14th paragraph.

And for the past four years, while high-profile transfers came and went and off-court drama took center stage for the program in recent years, the 6-foot-5 Maluach continued to quietly go on about his business without the fanfare some would argue is deserved for a player about to make his 94th career start for the program – and who currently sits tied with Mark Walters for No. 22 on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,200 points.

Friday night, in what would have been his Senior Night, Maluach will lead the struggling Lobos (5-12, 1-12 Mountain West) against the Wyoming Cowboys (11-9, 5-8) in a game being played without fans at the U.S. Air Force Academy – 400 miles north of the Pit – due to New Mexico’s public health order still prohibiting games from being played locally.

“All my friends and family back home had plans to come (to the United States) and watch my last game, but unfortunately, it’s not gonna happen,” Maluach said earlier this week in a conversation for the latest episode of the Talking Grammer podcast (listen HERE). “But that’s just life sometimes. Sometimes you don’t get what you want and you just have to move on. …

“I was really looking forward to playing in the Pit this year, but obviously we can’t. Life is bigger than game of basketball sometimes and with COVID and everything going on, we’ve got to think about other people.”

The NCAA already has ruled all players participating in this uniquely challenging 2020-21 season will get back a year of eligibility, meaning even seniors like Maluach will have the option to return for the 2021-22 season.

That, Maluach says, is not something he has decided on and, as an international player with clear opportunities to play professionally overseas or certainly in his home country of Australia and help his family financially, there is no guarantees he will come back. However, he admits his ties to the program, Weir and the fans, especially, are strong.

Maluach was recruited by former Lobos assistant coach Chris Harriman, who was already completely sold on him as potential Lobo star. Weir called Maluach in the summer of 2017 at the prep school he was helping pay his own way to attend by also serving as a groundskeeper.

As the story goes, and was first told in a December 2017 article in the Journal, shortly after Weir introduced himself, Maluach asked the first-year Lobos coach if he wouldn’t mind calling back later because he was busy working and couldn’t talk then.

“I think Paul respected that,” Maluach says today. “… I was just happy he called back.”

Weir has said that phone call sealed the deal for him – basketball skills or not, that was the type of player he wanted on his roster.

Four years later, he’s still singing Maluach’s praises.

“I think what you see on the court is a great example of what he is off the court as well,” Weir said. “You guys don’t get a chance to see the type of person he is, the type of student he is, the type of teammate that he is.

“I can’t say enough about him. And I try and use him as an example over the years. I’m sure the players get sick of it, of ‘just be more like him’. That’s why he gets to start. That’s why he gets to play. That’s why we trust him so much on the court, because he establishes such a great track record off the court and those things matter.”

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