Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lobos experience relief than only a win can deliver

There were smiles, of course.

But Friday night was more about relief than celebration for the UNM men’s basketball team.

For the first time in the Richard Pitino coaching era, the Lobos walked off the court Friday night with a Mountain West Conference victory in hand, snapping a seven-game losing streak to start league play with an 86-70 win over San Jose State in front of an announced pit crowd of 8,277.

“We’re just so ecstatic to finally get a win in this building,” said Lobos sophomore guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., who had a game-high 23 points. “I mean, we’ve let these fans down a plenty amount of times, so we’re just happy we were able to get one. We’ve got a lot of things we gotta get better at, as far as on the defensive side still, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.”

The Lobos improve to 8-13 overall this season and 1-7 in Mountain West play, avoiding the worst start for the program in league history from one year ago when the team started 0-8.

And, yes, the opponent for the Lobos was a big part of the story.

For SJSU, the other MWC team with a first-year coach in Tim Miles who is undertaking a massive program rebuild, Friday’s loss drops the Spartans to 7-12 overall and 0-7 in league games.

So their struggles — they played with eight available scholarship players — had something to do with the Lobos winning, but to say that’s all it was would be a disservice to the completeness of UNM’s performance on Friday and would be ignoring the genuinely competitive basketball the Lobos have been playing despite their recent losses.

On Friday, five Lobos scored in double figures, the Lobos led the game wire-to-wire and cruised to a comfortable win — a big change over a slew of recent heartbreaking losses in which, as big underdogs, the Lobos had chances to pull off upsets in the final minutes of games.

Through it all, House insists the Lobos recognized their performance was far better than their results.

“We just keep fighting,” House said. “I like this group of guys. They’ve been fighting for the past few weeks. … These past few weeks, I’ve been seeing a big turn.”

House, who became the only Division I player this season to post a statline of at least 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds in a game, set the table for the Lobos’ offense and said the energy in the locker room has been positive of late when it could have easily gone the other direction.

Friday, he and Mashburn set the tone early and often.

The pair led UNM to a 9-0 lead before Miles called a timeout with 17:56 showing on the clock.

The Lobos’ next bucket was a no-look House assist to freshman center Sebastian Forsling for a dunk and the first of House’s MWC season-high 13 assists. And then House hit a layup of his own for a 13-6 lead with 15:40 left in the half.

The Lobos led by as many as 18 in the game, outrebounded the Spartans 38-23 and shot 54.2% from the field, hitting 10-of-22 3-pointers in the process.

Asked if the Lobos were excited seeing San Jose State on the schedule as a team they likely had a good chance to beat after so many close losses, Pitino was quick to fire back, “Well, who are we to have an ego? Quite frankly, it’s not like we’re setting the world on fire either here.”

He then noted that while it’s clear the Spartans are very much in a tough rebuilding process of their own, Pitino heaped plenty of praise on his team’s ability, even in the losing streak that is now over, to show up and perform each game.

“Obviously good when you win,” said Pitino.

“I think the thing that our guys have done with so many dramatic, kind of devastating close losses is they’ve stayed confident. They’ve stayed positive. And the locker room has never wavered. I think they see the big picture.”

Gamebook: UNM 86, San Jose State 70

Sunday: UNM at San Diego State, 8 pm, FS1, 770 AM/96.3 FM

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