The preseason Mountain West Conference men’s basketball media poll had the Wyoming Cowboys and New Mexico Lobos tied.
Since then, Wyoming has enjoyed a dream season and has NCAA Tournament hopes. The UNM Lobos had the familiar wait-till-next year mantra hung on them long ago.
But for 40 minutes on Saturday night, you’d be hard pressed to say the two teams didn’t look like equals.
The Cowboys hit eight free throws in the final 42 seconds, including one coming on a technical foul called on Lobos coach Richard Pitino in a pivotal moment, to hold off an upset-minded UNM team with a 93-91 victory over a season-best announced crowd of 5,368 in Laramie’s Arena Auditorium.
“I don’t apologize for it,” Pitino said in a postgame telephone interview. “That’s all I’ll really go into. I didn’t agree with it.”
UNM had just hit a pair of free throws to cut Wyoming’s lead to 89-87 with 26 seconds remaining of a high-scoring, back-and-forth second half.
The Lobos pressed and forced a turnover when Wyoming’s Drake Jeffries carelessly threw the ball down court and Lobo guard K.J. Jenkins stepped in front of it.
He passed it to teammate Jamal Mashburn Jr., who drove right and made contact with Wyoming senior Hunter Maldonado.
The official called it a charge on Mashburn, giving Wyoming the ball back up two and Pitino got heated, yelling at the official and drawing the technical.
Technically speaking, since Jeffries hit only one of two of the technical free throws and it was still a one-possession game with Wyoming inbounding the ball, the technical didn’t seem to decide the game as much as the block/charge call did, but the emotions seemed to suggest the technical was the tipping point.
The Cowboys held on to win and improved to 15-2 overall and 4-0 in Mountain West play.
The Lobos, despite playing two of their best games in a row in a week of Front Range losses at Colorado State on Wednesday as 16-point underdogs and at Wyoming on Saturday as 12-point underdogs, fall to 7-12 overall and 0-6 in Mountain West play.
“It’s one of those deals where you don’t apologize for winning, and we’re going to enjoy this one, but there’s some things that we’re gonna have to take from it and learn from it,” said Wyoming coach Jeff Linder.
He noted his team likely won’t win many games if they allow a team to shoot 66% in the second half as the Lobos did on Saturday in what was a 57-52 advantage for UNM in the second-half shootout (Wyoming shot 73% in the half).
Wyoming stars Graham Ike (29 points and 15 rebounds) and Maldonado (25 points, seven assists) carried the load for the Cowboys, who shot 58% overall and hit 27-of-35 free throws.
For the Lobos, four players scored in double figures, including a career-high 25 by Jay Allen-Tovar, 22 from Mashburn Jr. and 18 from House.
House scored 12 of UNM’s final 15 points to keep the outcome in doubt until the final seconds.
But Wyoming hit 27-of-35 free throws compared to 9-of-11 for UNM — a troubling recent trend for the team that a month into the season led the nation in free throw attempts per game and now can’t seem to get to the line with consistency.
In the past two losses, UNM was outscored at the free throw line by 36. CSU and Wyoming hit a combined 22-of-29 free throws in the final five minutes of those games.
As for his thought of the late call, Maldonado admitted he had been working for the call.
“He was pushing off all game,” Maldonado said. “I knew if I was gonna get on him one more time and he was driving to his right and strong and he liked to push off with that left arm. … I’ve been talking to the refs about it all game because he got away with it a couple times.”
BOX SCORE: Wyoming 93, New Mexico 91
UP NEXT: UNM hosts Fresno State at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Pit. That game will be streamed on the Watch Stadium app and can be heard on 770 AM/96.3 FM.
READ MORE: For more news, news and analysis from Saturday’s game in Laramie, read Emptying the Notebook.