They’ve talked all year about how there are no nights off in the Mountain West.
Friday, it didn’t appear as if all the New Mexico Lobos entirely believed their own words.
Jamal Mashburn, Jr., was an exception.
In a game that, at times, was far too close for comfort for the announced Pit crowd of 15,143, Mashburn scored 12 of his game-high 24 points in the final six minutes to help the No. 25-ranked Lobo basketball men erase a four-point deficit and beat Air Force, 81-73.
“I think some of our guys kind of underlooked them just because, you know, it says ‘Air Force’,” said Mashburn, Jr., who has played against the Falcons three times and said he was well aware of what was coming.
“They’re a very great group, and they work well together. They kept just going back to the same thing that was working, no matter if they were down. They just kept going and they got good players on that squad. This conference is dangerous.”
UNM (19-3, 6-3) is fourth in the league standings. Air Force (12-10, 3-6), which matched last season’s conference win total by Jan. 17, hasn’t won in the Pit since 2007 and falls to 4-89 against ranked teams (the last win being 2013 vs. UNM at the Air Force Academy).
“Terrific win,” Lobos coach Richard Pitino said. “It kind of went the way I thought it would go. I think Air Force is much improved. They were really, really running their stuff to perfection in the second half. … We were able to calm down a little bit when they went up four and pull away, so it’s a terrific win. The building was amazing.”
While UNM led 43-34 at halftime, Air Force grounded the Lobos at the start of the second half, using a quick 10-2 run to cut UNM’s lead to 45-44 with 16:52 left in the game.
“I didn’t know they were that good. I ain’t gonna lie,” Lobo senior forward Morris Udeze admitted postgame. “The second half, I was shook. The backdoors was crazy (referring to numerous backdoor layups the Falcons hit in the second half). We prepared for that, but the speed, the pace they was going at —they kept going faster and faster. …
“That’s a good team over there. I ain’t gonna lie.”
By the time Ethan Taylor hit a shot with 12:14, Air Force led 53-49 and the crowd was annoyed. So much so, during a media timeout with 11:43 left in the game, fans booed two UNM students who had a less-than-stellar showing in an on-court dance contest.
“I love our fans. Nobody ever claimed that they’re nice,” Pitino joked when he heard about the booing — something he didn’t notice at the time because he was refocusing the Lobos in a timeout.
After that timeout — and the dance contest — the Lobos seemed recommitted to getting the ball inside.
Udeze scored seven of the next nine Lobos points and then a Jaelen House steal and layup put the Lobos up 60-58 with 8:27. The game was far from over, and there were two more lead changes after that point, but the Lobos had clearly found what they had been missing after halftime.
Mashburn scoring 12 of the team’s final 19 points gave him 24 points in the game — his sixth consecutive game of scoring 20 or more points and he now has 1,011 points in his two years at UNM. (He had broke the 1,000 point mark in his college career earlier this season, but did so as just a Lobo on Friday night.)
Udeze ended up with 15 points, eight rebounds and the nine fouls he drew helped foul out a pair of Falcons forwards — Beau Becker and Nikc Jackson.
Senior point guard House had 19 points, four assists, two turnovers and six steals — at least three of which he turned into fast break layups, helping give UNM a 23-10 advantage on points off turnovers.
NOTES: Morris Udeze was honored before the game for having joined the 1,000 point club in his college career during Monday’s game at Nevada. Udeze entered Friday’s game having scored 675 points at Wichita State and 330 at UNM. …
Air Force coach Joe Scott didn’t like a foul called on Mashburn with 4:39 left in the first half and earned a technical from game official Eric Curry. Mashburn hit his two free throws for the foul and two more for the technical, making it a four-point Lobos possession and giving UNM a 38-26 lead. …
New Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez was at Friday’s game in the Pit. She also attended Thursday night’s women’s home game vs. Colorado State. She started as commissioner on Jan. 1, becoming just the second commissioner in the 24-year history of the league. She takes over for Craig Thompson.
BOX SCORE: No. 25 New Mexico 81, Air Force 73
WEDNESDAY: UNM men at Utah State, 8:30 p.m., FS1, 770 AM/96.3 FM
READ MORE: Emptying the Notebook: Air Force latest to beat up on Lobos right after halftime