Lobos manage win in Bragg’s debut
ALBUQUERQUE — The last time Carlton Bragg got the go-ahead to rise from the bench and check into a college basketball game, he was wearing a Kansas uniform and it was Jayhawks coach Bill Self inserting him into an Elite Eight game against Purdue in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
His entry into Sunday afternoon’s mid-December nonconference gimmie against unheralded Central Arkansas lacked the drama, but it didn’t make it any less meaningful.
The 6-foot, 10-inch junior, who hasn’t played in 21 months, made his long-awaited debut for the University of New Mexico, logging 22-plus minutes and scoring 16 points with seven rebounds in the Lobos’ not-terribly-impressive 82-70 win over the Bears in The Pit.
It snapped a three-game losing streak and ushered in a new-look lineup for the Lobos (5-4). Playing with a true low-post threat at both ends of the floor, they converted 63 percent of their shots inside the 3-point line.
“When I first got in the game I was nervous,” Bragg said. “Very nervous.”
He checked in after the first media timeout, catching a handful of fans off guard because he wasn’t officially announced over the public address system until play had already resumed. The steady applause for those that saw him out there grew into an audible cheer when his name was called.
It seemed to inject life into the building and the team. Even the little things drew cheers, like altering a shot in the lane and then losing the ball out of bounds. A number of fans rose to their feet in appreciation.
“The standing ovation, just clapping for me — I just felt it,” Bragg said. “It was giving me butterflies … I feel like they was playing with me.”
Bragg got a kiss from his infant son just before the game started and was stopped by a handful of fans after the game, some asking for his autograph. It wrapped up a wild week for the Cleveland native, who turned 23 on Friday, the same day he finished final exams and gained full clearance from the NCAA.
It wasn’t all good for UNM. Head coach Paul Weir said afterwards that sophomore forward Vance Jackson and senior guard Dane Kuiper — who had one point on 0-for-6 shooting, six rebounds and five turnovers between them 30 combined minutes — both suffered minor injuries and didn’t see much action in the second half.
It continued an odd trend for the Lobos, one where Jackson and sophomore Makuach Maluach appear to alternate productive outings. The two have finished in double figures just once in the same game. When one plays well, the other doesn’t.
Sunday was Maluach’s turn to shine. He had a season-high 22 points, seven rebounds, a blocked shot and one ferocious baseline dunk. He played the entire game at the 3-spot, which equates to hybrid shooting guard and small forward in Weir’s offense — the same position Jackson plays.
Maluach wound up making 8 of 11 shots from the field, including four 3-pointers. It’s the first time since the season opener that he shot better than 50 percent.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit so it was good to see a couple of them go tonight,” Maluach said.
The Lobos used a late push to open a 40-32 lead at halftime and never really did deliver the knockout blow in the final 20 minutes. That said, Weir was content with the team’s defense in the second half — at least enough to not head for the door early when asked about his team’s energy at the defensive end.
“If you look at all our games, we’ve had good stretches,” Weir said. “Colorado, we probably played 25 minutes of good basketball and 15 minutes of bad basketball. Those 15 minutes killed us. Tonight … it was never near to that extent.”
Bragg’s inclusion in the lineup had a profound effect on two players, in particular. Sophomore Vladimir Pinchuk, the team’s go-to center for the first eight games, got fewer than 10 minutes and scored just four points. Junior Karim Ezzeddine, a 6-8 forward, had arguably his best game as a Lobo by scoring 10 points with a season-high nine rebounds.
Anthony Mathis added 13 points, getting all of his scoring off four 3-pointers and a free throw. No one else scored more than five points.
If there was a criticism, Weir said it was the Lobos’ insistence on dumping the ball into Bragg even when the situation didn’t necessarily call for it. They turned the ball over on consecutive possessions with sloppy passes over the top with a man fronting Bragg, then had the ball knocked away on the next possession when Bragg got double-teamed on the block.
The mindset of the entire team, Weir said, has changed to include him in the offense.
“It’s been kind of fascinating to watch,” Weir said. “We’ve been doing it a lot in practice over the past week or so. We’ve been kind of like force feeding him.”
For one game, the ploy worked. The Lobos’ shiny new toy was everything the team hoped it would be.
Fresh outlook: Weir said Ezzeddine’s breakout performance was probably just a matter of him getting through the fall semester. The native of Paris, France, worked with tutors and dealt with a gruelling course load. Breaking free of that after finals has allowed him, Weir said, to finally take a breath and have fun playing the game.
Roller coaster: Jackson has had an interesting run of late. He attempted just one shot in Sunday’s game, a season low for him. He has alternated busy nights with off nights the last six games. His shot attempts in that span: 11-3-10-4-16-1. His point totals have been 12, 3, 11, 9, 10 and Sunday’s total of one, a free throw in the second half.