K.J. Jenkins has been forced into a role he never realized he was signing up for.
As the UNM Lobos lose game after game — seven in a row to open Mountain West Conference play to be exact after Tuesday’s furious second-half rally came up just short in a 65-60 loss to Fresno State — the most consistently called on player to face the media on the team’s behalf has been the junior guard from Georgia.
And he’s fielded all questions — about the losses and the team’s inability to get over the hump — with patience and direct candor about the team’s need to play tougher and fight to win.
Tuesday night, only moments after the sharpshooter missed an open corner 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining that would have tied the game, Jenkins’ frustration finally had him at a loss for words.
“We as a team have to collectively get on the ground and get dirty,” Jenkins started with an answer about the team’s need to be more scrappy — something he has said is lacking.
“It’s like … it’s like nobody wants to … I don’t even know. It’s so tough to talk right now.”
Jenkins, who scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in the game, put his face in his hand, stopping before he said anything else.
For the Lobos, Tuesday’s loss dropped the team to 7-13 overall and into last place in the Mountain West at 0-7, despite showing in most of those games the type of energy, effort and never-give-up play that Lobo fans have long said they missed. Tuesday, Fresno State (14-5, 4-2 Mountain West) started the game hitting its first eight shots and opened up leads of 21-7 and later 41-26 by halftime after hitting 15-of-25 shots (60%).
When the Bulldogs opened the second half scoring in the opening minute, they held their largest lead of 17 points (43-26) despite star center Orlando Robinson missing much of the first half with a turned ankle suffered less than three minutes into the game.
While he later returned and finished with 11 points and four rebounds, guard Anthony Holland couldn’t seem to miss and finished with 22 points.
But three Lobos scored in double figures, led by 19 points from Jaelen House and 15 from Jamal Mashburn Jr., and UNM’s defense finally answered the bell after the early haymakers. A 16-3 run cut the lead to two (51-49) and the announced Pit crowd of 8,033 — back with a band and student section that had been missing over the past month — offered as much energy as it could as the Lobos kept it tight down the stretch setting up the near late-game heroics.
“I’m really appreciative of the crowd. That felt a little bit more like we’re used to,” Lobos coach Richard Pitino said. “… I’m very, very grateful. I know our record is not where it needs to be. I know our program isn’t where it needs to be, by any means. But, just the loyalty is awesome.”
He said the team’s second-half comeback was all about defense.
After Fresno State’s blistering first half shooting performance that included making six 3-pointers, the Lobos held the Bulldogs to just 33% (7-of-21) shooting in the second half, just one made 3-pointer and force eight of their team’s 12 turnovers.
“We weren’t great in the first half, obviously. Our defense was really, really poor,” said Pitino. “It was much better in the second half and that allowed to get from 17 (point deficit) to 2. Missed some open shots that I thought were good looks. We needed to get to the foul line more. We didn’t do it.
“So you know, disappointed. I thought we were really moving in the right direction (after tight road losses at Colorado State and Wyoming last week). … Not good enough, you know? So, back to work tomorrow. Just pick yourself up off the mat and keep building.”
UNM hosts fellow winless team San Jose State (7-11, 0-6) on Friday night in the Pit at 7 p.m.
BOX SCORE: Fresno State 65, New Mexico 60
UP NEXT: San Jose State at UNM, Friday, 7 p.m., WatchStadium.com (stream), 770 AM/96.3 FM