Lobos playing rematch with Nevada — just don’t call it revenge
The night of Jan. 7 is one of those that will forever be etched in the memory of Lobo basketball fans.
Up 25 points with 11 minutes to go against Nevada in a nationally televised game, cruising along to a lopsided victory that would be part of an overall picture that included a possible conference title and a return to postseason play.
Then it happened. In what will forever be remembered as The Collapse, The Implosion or The Choke, the Lobos wasted every bit of that lead in a 105-104 loss to the Wolf Pack in The Pit. Up 14 with less than 90 seconds to play, UNM suffered one of the most indescribable losses in school history, one that made national news and started a torrent of negative blowback directed at head coach Craig Neal.
My how things have changed.
The Lobos have recovered nicely from what was a devastating three-game losing streak that included that Nevada shocker and now find themselves standing toe to toe with the Wolf Pack in Reno, Nev., with first place in the Mountain West on the line.
New Mexico trails Nevada by a half game heading into Saturday’s rematch, meaning it can stand alone in first with a win.
“Highly motivated and really excited about the opportunity,” Neal said. “I think [the players] are excited about it, I’m excited about it. It’ll be a great game for our conference. It’ll be a great challenge for us to see if we’ve made some strides.”
In truth, the Lobos have done exactly that during their current four-game winning streak. They’ve done the things they didn’t do the first time out against Nevada, hitting key free throws in the final minute to put opponents away. The last four games they are a collective 27 for 31 from the line in the final minute.
With half the conference race now gone for most of the teams in the MWC, Nevada is the only team in the league that appears to have an NCAA Tournament resúmé as an at-large candidate. Their only two conference losses were to Fresno State and they already have road wins at UNM, Wyoming and Boise State.
“It’s one game at a time, but this is a big game for us,” Neal said. “To be playing this game, it’s a good thing for our kids.”
Nevada features the most dominant starting lineup in the Mountain West as four players average more than 13 points while the unit scores averages 72 points per game.
While guard Marcus Marshall leads the MWC with a 21.5-point average, the name on every Lobo fan’s mind is Jordan Caroline. The 6-foot-7 sophomore forward went off for a career high 45 points and 13 rebounds. He and Marshall combined for 71 points and 11 3-pointers.
“Obviously those guys hit some big shots,” said UNM guard Elijah Brown, the reigning MWC Player of the Week who has averaged 24.5 points the last four games.
Brown, Neal and everyone else from UNM is stopping short of saying Saturday’s game is about revenge. Or anything close to it.
Neal said his team has spent the last three weeks trying to learn from their mistakes and tried to move forward. It didn’t come easily. The loss to Nevada was followed by another one to UNLV.
“We have more pieces since the last time,” Neal said, referring to the return of backup forward Connor MacDougall and point guard Jordan Hunter. “More offensive pieces. More offensive firepower. Our guys are playing with more confidence now.”
MacDougall returned after missing four games with a concussion, scoring 10 points against Utah State on Tuesday. Hunter missed the last Nevada game with a sprained ankle but has seen his minutes increase while spelling starter Jalen Harris.
Neal said he wasn’t sure of MacDougall’s status until the day before the Utah State game. That’s when the two went into the Davalos Center for a private workout to test the big man’s readiness.
Now that he’s back in the mix, the Lobos have a wave of four proven low-post players in center Obij Aget, all-conference forward Tim Williams, backup Joe Furstinger and now MacDougall. That’s on top of a deep backcourt headed by the red-hot Brown.
It all has Neal smiling when talking about Nevada, a far cry from his expression after their last meeting.
“We’re a different team in some ways,” he said. “We also know how big this game is.”
Classroom goals: The Lobos finished the fall semester with a 3.0 teamwide grade-point average, the seventh straight semester they’ve posted a 2.7 or better with Neal as their head coach.
The team has posted a 2.7 in 17 of the last 18 semesters, all since Neal joined the staff as an assistant to former head coach Steve Alford.
Saturday: New Mexico (13-8, 6-3 MWC) at Nevada (17-4, 6-2), 2 p.m. in Reno, Nev.
TV: CBS-Sports Network
Radio: KVSF-AM 1400 and KKOB-AM 770
Live stats: www.lobos.statbroadcast.com