LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There would be no second-half flurry this time.
And, as was the case more often than they’d care to admit over the past couple of months, no amount of Lobo offensive wizardry could erase another night when their defense simply couldn’t stop the other team from scoring.
No. 3 Utah State had four players score in double figures, including a game-high 32 from Taylor Funk, to top the 6th-seeded New Mexico 91-76 late Thursday night in the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West Tournament in the Thomas & Mack Center.
It was the third time since 2019 the Lobos’ Mountain West season would end in the quarterfinals to the Aggies (25-7), though unlike the previous two, Thursday night is not expected to be the final game of the season for UNM (22-11), which is expected to play in the NIT. The postseason tournament that will announce its 32-team field Sunday night after the NCAA Tournament field is announced.
Utah State moves into Friday’s semifinals against No. 2 Boise State.
Unlike Wednesday night when a pro-Lobos crowd roared as the Lobos used a strong offensive performance in the second half to cruise to an 87-76 win over Wyoming, UNM never could overcome the Aggies’ early onslaught on Thursday.
“It wasn’t our night,” UNM point guard Jaelen House said. “They played better than us, honestly. That’s all it is.”
Utah State’s Taylor Funk sucked the energy out of Lobo fans early.
The Aggie forward scored his team’s first 16 points. His 3-pointer with 15:23 still showing on the first half clock was already his fourth of the game and put his team up 16-4.
“Well, none of it worked,” Lobos coach Richard Pitino said when asked what the Lobos tried to do so slow Funk. “He — man, he is a great shooter. Josiah (Allick) was the best length we could put on him. I don’t know what other great options we really have. But he was backing up and shooting over us. We needed to make him more uncomfortable, but that certainly was not the case at the beginning (of the game).”
Utah State would extend its lead to as many as 13 points in an opening half that saw them shoot 47.1% and hit 7-of-14 3-point attempts.
UNM hit just one shot from beyond the arc in the opening half — getting outscored in the half 21-3 on 3-pointers. By game’s end, USU was 12-of-24 from 3-point range and UNM finished 2-of-10.
Funk scored 21 of his 32 in that first half, and the Aggies took a 44-33 lead into the break. Jamal Mashburn, Jr., who scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-25 shooting, and Morris Udeze, who ended with his 14th double-double of the season (16 points, 11 rebounds) did their best to keep the Lobos in the game early, each scoring 10 points in the first half.
A Mashburn jumper with 16:42 left in second half cut the Aggies’ 11-point halftime lead to six and had Lobo fans out of their seats.
But the Aggies responded with an 8-0 run and later expanded their lead to as many as 18 (75-57) with 8:46 left. UNM did go on a 10-0 scoring run that had the deficit back down to single digits with just under 6 minutes remaining, but that would be the last time it seemed the Lobos had a shot at a comeback.
Steve Ashworth added 22 points for Utah State, who shot 48.4% from the field in the game and now have beaten the Lobos seven consecutive times — the last three by double digits that all featured huge first-half Lobo deficits.
Thursday, the Lobos defense, again, couldn’t seem to come up often enough.
“Yeah, they were killing us the whole game,” House said. “They shot pretty well. Funk had 30. Ashworth had 20. We just couldn’t stop anybody.”
Asked if the defensive deficiencies were about effort, House said he thought they were.
“We’re not guarding,” House said. “I feel it is an effort thing. Defense is an effort thing. So we’re not applying ourselves and given our teammates effort on the defensive (end).”
Pitino had a different take.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of effort. I really don’t,” Pitino said. “It’s just that team was shooting over us all the time. We lost two games (in the regular season) at the buzzer by guys shooting over us. So we need to get bigger. Our roster needs to get bigger. Plus, we need to do a better job coaching them and all of those things.”
UP NEXT: The selection for the NIT comes Sunday night (7 p.m. Selection Show on ESPNU) after the NCAA Tournament field of 68 teams is announced. The Lobos don’t know if they will get a home game or not, but are fairly confident they will be in the field based on all computer metrics and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) data.
UNM has been in talks with the NCAA so both are on the same page about arena availability and interest in participating in the event, which the Lobos certainly are.
“We’d play tomorrow if that’s needed,” K.J. Jenkins said. “NIT? We’re very grateful for that and I’m looking to go win that NIT.”
Asked if there was any level of disappointment after the team’s fast start to the season — 14-0 and being the final Division I team in the country without a loss — Pitino said there wasn’t an ounce.
“I would say there’s not even a little part in my body that’s disappointed with this season,” said Pitino. “I felt as though we would be much improved from last year. We were.”
UNM_USU_Box by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd