Richard Pitino was worried the momentum his team had established over its impressive 3-0 start to the season may have come to an end due to an unusual and unexpected 10-day break between games.
It turns out, the Lobos’ “Mo” wasn’t about to let that happen.
Senior forward Morris Udeze scored a game-high 22 points — 16 in the first half alone — and the Lobos held visiting Jacksonville State under 38% shooting during a 79-61 win on Friday evening in the Pit in the opener of the three-day Lobo Classic.
“I feel like my teammates and my coaches are putting me in a great position to score around the basket, so that’s what’s been happening,” said Udeze.
The 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Wichita State was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field in the first half on Friday (he finished 9-of-11 for the game) as the Lobos jumped out to a 14-0 lead, much to the delight of the announced Pit crowd of 9,033 who had to put in some work early in the game.
Per tradition, fans in the Pit stand and cheer until both teams score. The visiting Gamecocks (2-3) started the game 0-for-8 from the field and didn’t score until there was 13 minutes, 34 seconds left in the first half.
UNM (4-0), thanks in large part to Udeze continually dominating in the post and his guards continually rewarding him for running the floor, carried a lopsided 42-21 lead into the locker room at the break.
And if the most experienced player on the roster, Udeze, was the first half star carrying the Lobos on Friday, it was true freshman Donovan Dent who played the role of closer in the second half.
Dent finished with nine points, seven assists and just one turnover in 24 minutes off the bench — both running the show for the team down the stretch but also giving a breather for starting point guard Jaelen House, the team’s leading scorer.
House got banged up on a tumble into the Gamecocks’ bench in the first half and suffered through his worst statistical game of the season (four points on 2-of-9 shooting in just 16 minutes).
It was Dent’s second-straight game with seven assists and one turnover (he’s at 18 and two on the season) and also the second straight game his ability to run the offense while House is on the bench was evident.
“When Jaelen went out because he (had) a little hip injury I think or something, I just kind of picked up for him,” said Dent. “I think I talked about that last time against SMU. I just kind of pick up for him if he’s feeling off, I’m always going to pick up for him.”
UNM outrebounded JSU 45-30 and outscored them 40-26 in the paint and 20 to 7 at the free throw line.
JSU (2-3) did outscore UNM 40-37 in the second half, and while the Lobos clearly took their foot off the pedal some after halftime — if not in effort, at least in execution — Pitino was pleased overall that a potential emotional letdown was avoided. Friday’s performance came after his team both sat for 10 days between games and also had gotten up for an emotional rivalry game that was cancelled last Saturday due to the shooting on the UNM campus that left a classmate of theirs dead and an NMSU basketball player hospitalized.
“I was concerned coming into it,” Pitino said. “I thought the emotion would be a little bit hard, and we had to sustain it for 40 minutes. … I thought our defensive intensity was terrific at the beginning. We responded much better offensively in the second half.”
UP NEXT: North Dakota State vs. UNM, Saturday, 5 p.m., the Pit
BOX SCORE: UNM 79, Jacksonville State 61