LAS VEGAS, Nev. — One and done, part two.
For the second consecutive drama-filled season, the New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team, which had won nine consecutive Mountain West tournament games and three titles from 2012-2014, lost its first-round game of its league tournament.
Nevada’s freshman star Cameron Oliver capped a monster performance with a game-clinching block of a Cullen Neal jumper with three seconds remaining on the clock, leading the Wolf Pack to a 64-62 win over New Mexico in front of an announced crowd of 8,279 in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I thought our guys played hard,” UNM coach Craig Neal said. “I thought we were in position to make some plays to win the game late. It just didn’t happen for us.”
UNM hopes to play in the CBI postseason tournament, which begins next week and will be announced after the NCAA and NIT tournament fields are revealed on Sunday.
On Thursday, the Lobos (17-15) led 54-48 with under 5½ minutes left when Nevada and Oliver took over. The Wolf Pack (19-12) took a 63-62 lead on a Tyron Criswell basket with 36 seconds remaining, giving him 20 for the game.
On the final possession, UNM sophomore guard Elijah Brown, who tied Oliver with a game-high 26 points, got double teamed in the left corner and the Lobos reversed the ball to Cullen Neal in the opposite corner for the final Lobos shot.
“Yeah, I seen — on the other side — we had Elijah Brown trapped,” said Oliver, who added to his 26-point outburst 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. “I read the swing of the ball.”
The swing of momentum was back and forth throughout. It was unlike how the Lobos had swept Nevada in two regular season games, leading one by as many as 18 points, and then on Saturday in Reno by as many as 20.
Nevada coach Eric Musselman said the focus this time was on implementing “the Lobo rules” on defense. The scheme specifically was geared at making life difficult on UNM’s leading scorers Brown and Tim Williams, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting (he led the league in shooting percentage in the regular season at 61 percent). Brown’s 26 points came on 6-of-15 shooting, 9-of-10 at the free throw line, but he also had seven turnovers.
“I scored the ball, but I missed too many shots,” said Brown. “I had way too many turnovers like I have the last four games. I’ve had at least six turnovers, that’s something that’s just inexcusable. I’m not happy.”
He and Williams, who were sitting out last season as transfers when UNM lost in the play-in round of the MWC Tournament to Air Force, both said they hope they get one more chance at redemption this season by playing in the CBI. Craig Neal agreed.
“Yeah, I hope so,” Neal said. “I think this group needs to. … there’s a lot of guys coming back, and they need to play basketball.”
Craig Neal later acknowledged he hopes every player will be back, and yet he also cited last year’s Division I transfer figure exceeding 700, then bemoaned recent local media coverage of recent Lobo transfers who had successful seasons at their new schools.
“I’ve never been in a town where you write about guys who leave the program and don’t want to be Lobos,” Neal said, later pointing out that some players might want to go to lesser programs to score more points, “but the grass isn’t always greener.”
UNM has had numerous all-conference players who were transfers through the years, including Williams and Brown. As for the rumor Cullen Neal has already decided to leave UNM this offseason as a graduate transfer, Craig Neal wouldn’t say.
“We haven’t talked about that,” Craig Neal said, adding he didn’t anticipate any staff changes.
As for Craig Neal’s future, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs echoed what he has said in the past: Craig Neal is still the coach and there will be an evaluation of his performance after the season ends. Craig Neal has maintained he plans to be the coach through the 2020 season as his contract calls for.