In the middle of four games played at the U.S. Air Force Academy in an eight-day stretch, the Lobos on Saturday night ate dinner at the home of Dave Pilipovich, the former Air Force coach who is now on the UNM staff.
“It was the first time we’ve ever been together in a social setting together to eat and watch TV and hang out,” said Lobos head coach Paul Weir, who has noted on several occasions the mental drain his team has felt living the season in hotels and being the first team in Mountain West history to not play a home game, all due to New Mexico’s public health order.
“It was a lot of fun and I think it really helped us kind of get over the last couple of games and, hopefully just refresh our minds and get ready for this one.”
While the competition level helped, the Lobos looked like anything but a team feeling sorry for itself Monday night. There was energy, effort and focus in as well-balanced a team effort as UNM has had, beating host Air Force 73-65 on Monday night in Clune Arena.
The win moved UNM to 6-13 on the season and 2-13 in Mountain West play, snapping a five game skid and, for now, moving them out of last place in the league standings. The two teams play again Wednesday afternoon at Clune Arena, where Air Force (4-17, 2-15) will look to return the favor.
Unlike Friday, when the Lobos fell behind 21-0 early to Wyoming in the same gym, they got off to a quick 10-2 start Monday. Even with a rough patch in the middle of the game in which Air Force led by as many as seven, the Lobos never looked distracted from a primary game plan of contesting the 3-point shot of the guard-oriented Falcons (AFA hit just 6-of-24 3-pointers) and not letting the matchup zone defense bait them into shooting 3s of their own.
The poor-shooting Lobos remained disciplined, shooting just nine 3-pointers in the game (they made two) while point guard Saquan Singleton used a 13 assist/1 turnover game to set up the Lobo bigs for arguably their best game of the season. Centers Bayron Matos and Valdir Manuel combined for 27 points on 13-of-14 shooting, leading UNM to 44 points in the paint.
It wasn’t wire-to-wire for the Lobos. After a 10-point lead at 32-22 with under a minute to play in the first half, the Falcons went on a 22-5 run and led 44-37 lead with 13:05 left in the game.
In stepped senior Makuach Maluach, who had a team-high 22 points hit a 3-pointer and made a pair of free throws in a 7-0 Lobos run to tie the game at 44-44 with 11:47 left.
A back-and-forth game the next several minutes was eventually put to rest when sophomore Emmanuel Kuac hit a 3-pointer and then had a steal and break-away dunk that put UNM up 61-54 with 5:48 left.
Air Force’s one-two backcourt scoring punch of A.J. Walker (26) and Chris Joyce (16) combined for 42 points and Abe Kinrade added 15 off the bench.
“I’m really happy for them and just everybody who’s been along this ride,” Weir said. “We’ve been in a lot of these games with 3 minutes to go and you can win, you can lose, and we haven’t pushed through to get a lot of those wins. We’ve been on the other side so just for them to have that confidence to close one out the way that we did … I thought we finished it really strong, and I’m happy for them.”
MALUACH WATCH: With his bucket with 16:11 left in the game, Maluach scored his 9th and 10th points of the game, giving him career points 1,239 and 1,240. That pushed him past fellow Aussie Cameron Bairstow (1,239) into No. 21 on UNM’s all-time scoring list.
By game’s end, his 22 points pushed him into the top 20 with 1,252 points, also passing on Monday night Marvin “Automatic” Johnson (1,246).
UP NEXT: Wednesday, 4 p.m., at Air Force, TheMW.com/watch (online), 770 AM/96.3 FM
BOX SCORE: New Mexico 73, Air Force 65