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Lobos defense in the zone in win over Air Force

January 4, 2019

Call off the Grim Reaper; the Lobos and head coach Paul Weir are coming home happy and just a little bit healthier than when they left.

The University of New Mexico men’s basketball took a step closer to playing decent zone defense in a 65-58 win at Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday night, the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams. The Lobos (7-6, 1-0) forced 14 turnovers and held the Falcons (5-8, 0-1) to just 38 percent shooting in a game that saw four UNM players reach double figures in scoring.

It completed a two-game road swing that started with last weekend’s unusual trip to Hobbs against a NAIA opponent, then to the Texas panhandle and finally to Colorado Springs. The Lobos left town Saturday, bused a combined 13 hours between Albuquerque, the edge of the Permian Basin and then to Lubbock, Texas, then flew to Air Force Academy for Wednesday’s game.

It was a taxing run, but one Weir feels good about.

“I told my wife before we left if we don’t go and get two wins on this trip I might be coming home in a casket,” he said during his postgame radio appearance on KKOB-AM. “We got the two wins. We had five amazing days together. We spent a ton of time in the gym together, a ton of time in film room together. We bonded, we’ve gone out to dinner, we’ve done a lot of really good things the last five days and I’m happy about that.”

Playing zone defense most of the way, New Mexico used a 12-2 run in the first half to turn a five-point deficit into a five-point lead, then went up by as many as 13 in the second half before withstanding a late Falcons run in the waning moments.

Air Force missed a handful of point-blank shots in the final two minutes and finished the game 2-for-15 from 3-point range.

“I thought defensively we saved ourselves,” Weir said. “I thought we were able to kind of get a win with our defense, holding a team to 58 points and sub-40 percent from the field.”

The Lobos won the game despite getting poor production from its big men. Center Carlton Bragg started the game with a bucket and a quick rebound, but he picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and had three fouls before the half. Karim Ezzeddine didn’t offer much relief as he, Bragg, Vladimir Pinchuk and Corey Manigault all combined for just 12 points and 20 rebounds.

Bragg played the entire way with foul trouble and against a smaller Air Force lineup that continually tried to pull him out of his comfort zone under the basket, it put the pressure on other players to produce. For the first half that did not include Anthony Mathis.

The senior point guard attempted just two shots in the first half and went to the locker room with no points. He erupted for all 17 of his points in the second half, including four free throws in the final half minute to seal it.

“Quite honestly, if you asked me if we could get away with Carlton being in foul trouble the entire night and Anthony maybe not get going for a while, I’d question whether we could,” Weir said.

UNM’s zone gave Air Force small forward Lavelle Scottie a number of open shots from 12 feet in. He attempted 27 shots — 17 more than any of his teammates — and finished with a game-high 20 points. He made only 10 of his attempts, a stat that Weir said he could live with because the zone defense did what it was supposed to do in that situation; force the kind of shots the Lobos can probably live with.

It helped that senior Dane Kuiper had a solid night, particularly in the first half. He had a jumper and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions, then forced a steal that led to a Manigault dunk. Kuiper finished with 10 points while Vance Jackson had 14. In two games during the road trip, Jackson scored 30 points and shot the ball relatively well while adjusting to his new role in the defense.

The win sets up a happy homecoming for New Mexico, which hosts sixth-ranked Nevada in The Pit on Saturday night. The Wolf Pack is the highest-ranked opponent UNM has faced at home since beating No. 6 San Diego State on Feb. 22, 2014.

NOTES

No show: Backup point guard Keith McGee was not with the team Wednesday, his second straight missed game due to illness. He was with the Lobos in Hobbs but didn’t play. Weir said he sent McGee home prior to the trip to Colorado.

With him out, Mathis played a season-high 36 minutes. Freshman Drue Drinnon got seven minutes but attempted just one shot and had one assist without scoring.

Alford: Weir was asked about former colleague Steve Alford’s firing from UCLA during his postgame radio interview. Weir worked on Alford’s staff at Iowa; Alford later coached for six years at New Mexico before taking the job at UCLA in 2014.

Weir did not agree with UCLA’s decision to dismiss Alford when it did, saying it set a bad tone considering Alford has never been investigated for rules violations.

“For a coach to be relieved of duties in season, I think, is an awful precedent not only for institutions of higher education [but] for the student-athletes just the message that it sends,” Weir said.

Lobo women remain hot: UNM dominated Air Force in the women’s MWC opener for both teams Wednesday night in The Pit, winning 78-57.

The Lobos (11-1, 1-0) held the Falcons to nine points in the second quarter, taking a 37-25 lead into the locker room. Jayla Everett led the way with a team-high 19 points for New Mexico while Aisia Robertson had 15, Jaedyn De La Cerda 11 and Nike McClure with a game-high 10 rebounds.

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