Rick Wright column: Lobos stayed the course, so should fans

With one minute, 48 seconds left in Saturday’s New Mexico-UNLV men’s basketball game at the Pit and the Lobos down by seven points, dozens or perhaps hundreds of fans headed up the steps onto the concourse, out of the building and into the Albuquerque night .

One could argue that those folks were the smart ones, since seven points is the margin by which the Lobos eventually lost, 84-77.

I’m arguing the opposite — that this is a New Mexico team worth not just packing the Pit for but staying for the duration, win or lose.

I’d never try to tell anyone what to do with their disposable income. But Saturday’s sellout crowd of 15,424 needn’t and shouldn’t be the last such gathering this season, just because these Lobos aren’t (it turns out) a team for the ages.

Yes, winning is preferable to losing, unless you’re a lowly NBA team desperate for the draft rights to Victor Wembanyama. And sights must be lowered now that the Lobos, winners of their first 14 and getting us all excited, have lost two in a row. They’re 1-2 in Mountain West Conference play. With little doubt, their national ranking will be gone come Monday.

They’re good. They’re not great. But one could argue, and I will, that good is great for a program that had gone 19-35 the previous two seasons.

Men’s college basketball is competition, but it’s also entertainment. Were you not entertained? I was.

About that winning thing, or in this case the opposite: Lobos power forward Morris Udeze was not a happy man after the game, despite his 22 points and 13 rebounds.

“We didn’t match (UNLV’s) intensity,” he said, referring in particular to a 9-0 Runnin’ Rebels run at the outset of the second half, turning a 43-38 UNM lead into a 47-43 deficit.

New Mexico trailed the entire second half, but fought back and cut the deficit to a single point, 72-71, on two Jamal Mashburn Jr. free throws with 3:13 left. UNLV (11-3, 1-2) stretched its lead back to seven, prompting the fan exit at 1:48.

Game over? No. A Udeze free throw and two Mashburn layups cut the margin to four.

Then, Mashburn was fouled on a 3-point shot by the Rebels’ Elijah Harkless. Mashburn, a 79.5% foul shooter and 4-of-5 from the line in Saturday’s game to that point, made the first of three free throws with a chance to cut the deficit to one point with 22 seconds left. He missed the next two.

UNLV was 4-of-4 at the line from there, and UNM’s Mashburn and KJ Jenkins missed jumpers. OK, game over. Now, you can go home.

“…We didn’t cash out today,” Udeze said. “We usually do, but…it’s a tough one.”

Lobos coach Richard Pitino took pains after the game to credit the fans for selling out the Pit for the first time since 2015.

“Disappointed, obviously, that they had to walk out of here with a loss,” he said.

Fans, of course, don’t lose. They just feel like they did.

If players and coaches can get over a loss, their fans certainly can.

The Lobos’ next game is at home on Monday against Oral Roberts, a nonconference game arranged after UNM lost its annual home-and-home series with New Mexico State because of a fatal shooting that involved both schools.

The timing, two days after a disappointing loss, is less than opportune. A sellout on a Monday? Not likely, even if the Lobos were 16-0 and even if there weren’t a college football national title game that evening.

So, eat or don’t. Do what you will. Again, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do. But if the Lobos are down to Oral Roberts by seven points with 1:48 left in the game, I’d suggest you stick around.

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