Their head coach wasn’t there.
The UNM defense certainly didn’t appear to be there at times in the second half, either.
And in the end, a ferocious second-half shooting effort by a veteran Utah State Aggies squad was too much for the Lobos to hold off, falling to the visiting Aggies 90-87 in an overtime thriller in the Pit.
“I thought our kids really laid it out there all on line tonight,” said acting Lobos coach Eric Brown, who learned along with the rest of the team on Saturday morning that head coach Richard Pitino would not coach after testing positive for COVID-19.
“I really feel bad for them. They’ve had a good week of practice — a long week of practice. … We’re really proud of their effort and their fight tonight, and they did it together.”
The Lobos (7-8, 0-2 Mountain West) got 29 points and 8 assists from sophomore Jamal Mashburn Jr., a career-high 23 points including seven 3-pointers from sophomore Javonté Johnson and for the first 20 minutes or so of Saturday’s game looked as good as they have all season on both ends of the floor despite the absence of their head coach.
Utah State was held to just 26.1% shooting (6-of-23) after a missed Zee Hamoda 3-point try with 3:52 remaining in the opening half with the Lobos leading 33-19.
While the Aggies hit 4 of their next 5 shots to end the half, the Lobos still led 42-27 at the break and an Emmanuel Kuac dunk on the opening possession of the second half gave UNM its largest lead of the game at 17 pointes (44-27).
But the late shooting stretch at the end of the first half turned white hot for the Aggies after the break.
Utah State (10-5, 1-1 Mountain West) ended up with six players scoring in double figures led by senior Justin Bean, who scored 14 of his team-high 21 points in the second half to go along with 11 rebounds and the fourth double-double of his college career against UNM.
After that 6-for-23 start, the Aggies hit 27 of their next 37 shots (73.0%) over the final 28:52 of the game. They rallied back from that 17-point deficit and even led by four late before the Lobos who battled back to force overtime.
“They’ve been an NCAA Tournament team for a long time; they got a lot of old guys, so we know that us going up 16 In the first half is not going to rattle them,” Mashburn said. “We knew that they were going to come back with their second punch. …
“We got to do a better job of defending; no getting back and transition was one of our weaknesses.”
Failures in pick-and-roll and transition defense led to the Lobos surrendering 54 points in the paint.
The Lobos had just 20 points in the paint as they continue to adjust on the fly to a new small-ball style without much of an offensive threat to speak of in the post. That area may have suffered another blow when first-time starter Kuac suffered a serious left foot injury late in the game and was taken to the hospital after leaving the bench area on a stretcher.
Brown said they would know more Sunday on Kuac’s condition.
Still, the Lobos hit a season-high 17 3-pointers, outrebounded USU 35-31 and had their chances.
A K.J. Jenkins’ corner 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds remaining in regulation tied the game at 76-76 and forced overtime.
The extra frame was a back-and-forth affair until a pair of Steve Ashworth free throws with 19.2 remaining that seemed to ice it for Utah State with a four-point lead.
PITINO: After experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 Saturday morning, Pitino first took a home self test and later another to confirm he was positive for the virus.
Per Mountain West and NCAA safety guidelines, no Lobo player or staff member had to test unless they showed symptoms because all are fully vaccinated. Pitino must stay isolated from the team at least five days, meaning he will also miss Tuesday’s game at UNLV.
GETHRO: UNM had a pregame moment of silence for former Lobo Gethro Muscadin, who remains in a coma after a Dec. 29th car crash in Kansas, with several of his Lobo teammates appearing emotional.
HE TWEETED IT: Pitino after the game posted on Twitter, “Our guys fought. Proud of them. Adversity is hitting us in a big way. Just have to keep fighting.”
BOX SCORE: Utah State 90, New Mexico 87 (OT)
UP NEXT: UNM at UNLV, 9 p.m. Tuesday, CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/96.3 FM
VIDEO: Here’s the postgame video of acting coach Eric Brown and Lobo players Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Javonte Johnson: