Lobos’ rally cut short; caoch blames officials
ALBUQUERQUE — One play does mean a lot.
In the case of the struggling University of New Mexico basketball team, it sometimes means the difference between winning and losing. This instance revolves around two plays, both of which came in the final 31 seconds of Saturday’s Mountain West Conference game in The Pit, both of which delivered the latest gut punch to a team headed nowhere fast.
Visiting Utah State made off with a 68-66 victory, thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer by Abel Porter with 1.8 seconds left. His shot was the direct result of the first play in question, one that had Lobos head coach Paul Weir empathizing with the New Orleans Saints after they had their Super Bowl bid cut short by a controversial late noncall in the NFC Championship game.
“I feel like Sean Payton, so we can go ahead and however you want to do it,” Weir said as he started his postgame news conference.
With the Lobos nursing a 66-65 lead, center Carlton Bragg blocked a Sam Merrill shot in the lane with 37 seconds left. It led to a tie-up along the baseline that gave the Lobos possession on a jump ball situation.
Six seconds later, the ball was back in the Aggies’ hands when Anthony Mathis committed the cardinal sin of point guard play when he picked up his dribble against a double team at midcourt. Pinned into a no-win situation, he floated an overhead pass along the midcourt stripe to teammate Vance Jackson.
Officials immediately ruled it a backcourt violation.
“I don’t want to construe that as that’s the reason we lost,” Weir said. “We obviously did a lot of other things, but it just sucks for us right now.”
The Aggies put the ball in Merrill’s hands for the last shot, but when he was double-teamed by Mathis and Dane Kuiper near the top of the key with five seconds remaining, he offered a one-handed jump pass across his body to Porter on the wing. Porter dribbled once and shot over Mathis for the game-winner.
It ruined what had been a terrific comeback for UNM. Down by as many as 14 in the first half and 10 in the second, the Lobos clawed their way back after Mathis came to life. Scoreless until the 13:57 mark of the second half, Mathis erupted for 16 points in a wild 10-minute stretch to put his team in a position to win down the stretch.
Bragg finished with a team-high 18 points while Mathis had 16 and Jackson 13 with a team-high seven rebounds. Jackson said the over-and-back call should have never been called.
“It just looked weird, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Like, I hopped over [the midcourt line] to make sure it wasn’t a backcourt call but, yeah, I guess it’s one of those New Orleans Saints calls.”
The second play was the inability to make a stop on Utah State’s final possession. The Lobos did what they wanted to do against Merrill, forcing him into a tough spot as the clock wound down. No one accounted for Porter, left alone when Mathis drifted away to double team Merrill.
“We knew they were going to double off me, and Sam is an unselfish player and he just found me,” Porter said. “In those moments you can’t really think. Nothing is going through your head. What happened, happened and I’m just glad could help my team out.”
Merrill dropped in a game high 22 points. Porter had just six via a pair of second-half 3-pointers.
Saturday’s game was the rare close one for New Mexico. It was just the third time this season where it was decided by three points or less, and it’s just second game decided by single digits since mid-December.
“Unfortunately one play for us does mean a lot,” Weir said. “We don’t have a large margin of error where we just go out and overwhelm teams in certain ways. We need, unfortunately, calls and things that sometimes might be 50/50 that kind of go our way.”
Weir said he watched a replay of the Mathis turnover in the locker room before meeting with the media. By his determination it wasn’t an over-and-back, but he wasn’t sure if it was a play that could be challenged. He said he wasn’t entirely sure if it was something he could request the referees review on video replay.
“Unfortunately, losing takes a toll, and this losing is taking a toll and we’ve got to find a way to win some games while we’re process oriented,” Weir said. “We have to keep chugging away and chipping away at the things that we do and hope that this is the kind of game that turns for us later.”
MWC confirms mistake: A postgame video review of the Mathis turnover conducted by the Mountain West revealed that the ruling was, indeed, incorrect.
The league announced its mistake on social media, posting a brief statement on its Instagram account about two hours after Saturday’s game.
“Inasmuch as the situation involved a judgment call, it was not reviewable via the instant replay monitor in accordance with NCAA Playing Rule 11-1.4,” the MWC said in its release. “The matter will be addressed via the conference’s internal officiating evaluation procedures.”
Turnstiles: Saturday’s game drew 10,752 fans, about 500 below the season average that had UNM ranked 27th in the country in average attendance before the weekend. The Lobos are the only MWC team averaging more than 11,000 at home.