Using defense to fuel a furious second-half rally that cut a 27-point deficit to two points in the closing minutes, the UNM Lobos again came up short Friday night in Clune Arena, losing to the Wyoming Cowboys, 79-67.
The game, it seemed, was a painful microcosm of an agonizing season.
Early on, the Lobos (5-13, 1-13 Mountain West) looked lost — fitting for their last designated “home” game of the season that was being played 400 miles from the Pit at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Wyoming scored on a layup just four seconds into the game against a Lobos defense that didn’t seem prepared and jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The Cowboys stretched the lead to as many as 27 points (33-6) midway through the first half.
And, much like the season, Maluach was the only semblance of order for the Lobos. He managed to keep a team that didn’t otherwise look interested in playing early on from absolute collapse. In his de facto senior night game, the 6-foot-5 wing from Australia scored a career-high 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
“We just dug ourselves too big a hole,” Maluach said, “and just trying to claw back and everything, at the end, we just ran out of gas. It’s hard. This is too good of a level to go down that big and expect to win many games.”
Though much of the story of this team’s season has already been written in the minds of most onlookers, the team certainly did not quit. And while that is a seemingly worthless consolation prize on most nights, it was one on that seemed to mean at least a little something Friday night to the team’s senior leader.
“I learned a lot about us as a team,” Maluach said. “We’re gonna find no matter what. … We could have easily thrown in the towel, but we didn’t. I really appreciate that. You know, it showed me a lot about the guys.”
Sparked by a call back to three years ago when the full-court pressure defense in Paul Weir’s first season was the calling card, the Lobos used defense to take Wyoming out of its rhythm and slowly chipped away at the lead.
A 31-12 run cut the lead to 67-65 with under four minutes to play.
“There really wasn’t a reason for them to fight back and I think it’s just — it’s an amazing group of kids, and I’m honored to coach them,” said Weir. “I’m honored to be around them every day. For them to just keep doing what they do, day in and day out, man … They’re great kids and I’m proud of them.
“Obviously, the losing is a challenge. It’s frustrating. It’s demeaning. It’s all kinds of things. But their effort, which is all I’ve really asked for from the get-go, has been pretty good under some very difficult circumstances.”
Nevertheless, the loss was number five in a row for the Lobos and the first sweep at the hands of the Cowboys in a conference season since 2003. It also locks in for the Lobos a best-case-scenario finish of being tied with San Jose State for the ninth- and 10th-place spots in the league standings with two games to be played Monday and Wednesday against Air Force.
Friday, Maluach was the only Lobo to score in double figures while Wyoming had four starters score between 10 and 15 points with junior Hunter Maldonado (14 points) adding 16 rebounds.
Wyoming (12-9, 6-8 MWC) again went toe-to-toe with the much larger Lobos on the boards, beating UNM at one of its few statistical strengths by outrebounding it 35-32.
The free throw line, again, was the difference. After missing 15 free throws Wednesday in a game that went to overtime, on Friday UNM was 12-of-22 (54.5%) at the line to 16-of-21 for Wyoming.
COMEBACKS: While the Lobos flirted with a 27-point comeback Friday, the largest comeback in a Mountain West history happened earlier this season when Colorado State beat San Diego State on the road after being down by 26 in the first half.
That game erased the old record — Nevada coming back from 25 points down in the second half on the Lobos in the Pit on Jan. 7, 2017.
UP NEXT: Monday, 7:30 p.m., at Air Force, CBS Sports Network (Game 2 on Wednesday will be at 4 p.m. and streamed on TheMW.com/watch.
BOX SCORE: Wyoming 79, New Mexico 67