In a season of more than a few last-second, heartbreaking losses, few felt quite as deflating for the New Mexico Lobos as what happened Wednesday night in the Pit.
In the program’s long-awaited return to the postseason, the Lobos came out flat, didn’t play much defense and saw a rebuilding season otherwise worthy of praise fizzle out in an 83-69 defeat at the hands of Western Athletic Conference champion Utah Valley.
“Obviously a bad ending to a really good season,” said Lobos coach Richard Pitino. “I just talked to the team about — take the emotion out of it and although we didn’t play well and they played terrific, we have to understand what our weaknesses are. And I would say it’s certainly defense — individually, collectively, coaching —all of it’s gotta be better because you can’t win that way, especially when, tonight, the ball wasn’t going in.”
The Lobos, who started the season 14-0, end Pitino’s second season at 22-12 – the program’s first 20-win season and postseason appearance since 2014.
Utah Valley (26-8) got a career-high scoring night from Justin Harmon, who scored 20 of his 32 points in the first half. The visitors led for 37 of the game’s 40 minutes, sucking the wind out of the announced Pit turnout of 6,803.
The Wolverines now advance to the NIT’s second round vs. Colorado this weekend.
Other that an 8-0 scoring run — bringing the Lobos from down 9-4 to up 12-9 with 13:02 left in the half — UNM, which entered the game with the 20th-ranked offense in the country, could muster no other sustained scoring throughout the game to answer the steady onslaught of offense from the much taller, defensive-minded Wolverines.
UNM shot just 40.6% on the night, and Mountain West leading scorer Jamal Mashburn, Jr., who made clear he will be back with the Lobos next year — far from a certainty in the modern transfer-portal era of college basketball — had arguably his worst shooting night since coming to UNM. Minus Mashburn’s 1-of-14 shooting from the field, finishing with a season-low six points, the rest of the Lobos roster shot 49.1%.
Most impressive of the bunch was the game put in by the one Lobo whose college eligibility expired on Wednesday night, Morris Udeze.
The Lobo big man finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds, the most by a Lobo in an NIT game. It broke the previous mark of 18 by Luc Longley vs. Saint Louis in an NIT game in 1990 in Madison Square Garden.
“I just fell short,” Udeze said of what was going through his mind as he walked off the court for the final time as a college player with Wednesday’s loss “I wanted to win. We didn’t get the outcome. Last college game, I just wanted to give my heart, play as hard as I can. I feel like I left it all out there, man.”
UVU led by 13 at halftime and expanded that lead to 22 early in the second half.
The Lobos could never seem to come up with a stop when it mattered most, a theme consisting over the past two months of tough losses.
The Wolverines out-rebounded UNM 49-38 and outscored them 21-9 on 3-pointers.
NOTES: Jaelen House had four steals, giving him 86 on the season, breaking the single-season record of 84 held by former Lobo great and current team radio analyst Hunter Greene set in 1986-87. …
The Lobos attendance on Wednesday night was the highest of all 16 opening round NIT games played in the 32-team tournament. …
UNM falls to 18-21 all-time in the NIT. …
Josiah Allick scored 9 points for UNM, giving him 1,005 for his college career and making him the fourth Lobo this season to break the 1,000-point career scoring mark, joining Mashburn, House and Udeze.
BOX SCORE: Utah Valley 83, New Mexico 69
EMPTYING THE NOTEBOOK: For more news, notes and analysis from Wednesday’s NIT game, read Geoff Grammer’s Emptying the Notebook column, with a heavy dose of Morris Udeze appreciation right at the top.
PRESENTING JACK PITINO: Who did Jack Pitino, Lobo ball boy, son of UNM coach Richard Pitino, pick in his NCAA Tournament bracket this season? And how far does he have grandpa Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels going? Here’s our first ever Jack Bracket — or Jack-et — video reveal.