New Mexico's conference play opened on December 30th against Nevada at the Pit. Thus it is only fitting that the regular season ends with the Lobos visiting Reno. Between these two bookends, the Lobos' conference play has been inconsistent and in fact, they came into the game the losers of four in a row and the recipient of a trouncing at the Pit by San Diego State earlier in the week.
Even without Marqueze Coleman, who sat out his third straight game with a sprained ankle, Nevada was able to jump out to a quick 14-8 lead in the first six minutes of the game. Coach Neal was looking to his bench early for a spark and turned to steady PG Tim Jacobs and freshman G/F Dane Kuiper, who quickly rewarded Neal's decision with a steal and a corner three to cut the lead to 14-16, Nevada. Cullen Neal reentered the game and chipped in a three of their own to put UNM on top for the first time. This turned out to be the beginning of a run that put the cherry-and-silver up 26-19 punctuated by a Xavier Adams two-handed slam through traffic and a much-needed Wolfpack timeout.
The Lobos came out hot from deep, knocking down five of their first six and Cullen Neal leading the way early with 11 points. Eric Cooper finally ended a Wolfpack drought with a fast break layup and foul to cut the Lobo lead to 29-22 with 6 minutes left. The Lobos responded with a Cullen Neal lob to Obij Aget who laid it in and got the and-one to stretch the lead back to double digits. From there the two teams traded baskets (more like misses) for the rest of the first half. The Lobo lead ballooned to 15 (41-26) with a little over a minute to go, and the two teams entered intermission with the score at 41-28.
The second half started off with more of the same. The Lobos extended their lead to 49-32 on a Sam Logwood drive. It looked like UNM would maintain their lead by simply trading baskets the rest of the way, but the Wolfpack wouldn't be tamed.
The lead increased to 58-38 with ten minutes to go in the game. But poor shot selection and ten second-half turnovers allowed Nevada to get back in the game. And in the last five minutes of the game, that is precisely what they did. An 18-6 run, behind a collective effort from Cameron Oliver, DJ Fenner, and Tyron Criswell in conjunction with a foolish flagrant from Brown put the Wolfpack within 5 points (71-66) with 40 seconds left. But their comeback bid ran out of time and the Lobos were able to get stops when it mattered. Fortunately for New Mexico, a college game is only 40 minutes long.
Nevada struggled to score without Coleman. As much as I'd like to point to UNM's stingy defense, I'm more inclined to think that the Wolfpack rely heavily on Coleman's offense and there weren't many natural scorers in gray last night. Criswell, filling in for Coleman, led the way with 20 points. Fenner had 17 of his own (on 5/17 shooting) and big man Oliver contributed 13 points, including a fierce dunk, to go with a couple of swats and a number of hustle plays.
Elijah Brown paced the Lobos with 17 points and Cullen Neal added 16 and 6 assists. Obij Aget had 12 points and a career-high 14 boards.
As I mentioned, this was the last game of the regular season. The Lobos finished fifth in the conference and will look to play Cinderella in the MWC tournament this week in Las Vegas. Nevada will have a chance to avenge their loss when they match up with New Mexico on Thursday at 3:30 pm MS in the Mountain West tournament.