LAS VEGAS — Four days earlier, it was Carlton Bragg. On Wednesday, it was Vance Jackson.
Now Wyoming’s trying season is over.
Justin James once again gave the Cowboys a fighting chance with a game-high 31 points, but New Mexico rallied behind its full-court pressure and its UConn transfer to bounce Wyoming from the Mountain West tournament with a 78-68 win Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Lobos outscored Wyoming 51-30 in the second half to end one of the more futile seasons in the Cowboys’ history.
Their 24 losses are the most ever while their eight wins were the fewest since the 1973-74 team won four games. Their winning percentage (25) was the lowest since that same team won just 15.4 percent of its games.
“They kind of wore down a little bit in a sense of guys probably getting a little tired, but I loved the fight from this group with what they’ve been through all year,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “They’ve always come out with the right energy in practice and games. Tonight wasn’t any different. We just happened to come out on the wrong end of it.”
Wyoming looked like it might extend its season one more day when it led by as many as 16 and held a 47-34 lead with 14 minutes, 49 seconds left in the game, but UNM needed just 5:02 to erase the deficit. The Lobos ripped off a 22-3 run during that span behind Jackson, the second Lobo to go wild against Wyoming in as many games.
In Wyoming’s 88-81 win Saturday in the teams’ regular-season finale, Bragg, the Lobos’ 6-foot-10 big, terrorized the Cowboys with 22 points and 20 rebounds — both career highs. But Bragg wasn’t as much of a factor Wednesday, playing just 18 minutes because of foul trouble.
Jackson, however, went 8 of 15 from the floor, 3 of 7 from 3-point range and 7 of 10 from the free-throw line to finish with 26 points — 21 of those coming in the second half. He scored 13 straight to give UNM a 49-47 lead and 17 of the Lobos’ points during the spurt that gave UNM a 56-50 lead with 8:20 left.
“No different than any basketball player, once you see the ball go in a couple of times, your confidence goes up a little bit more,” Edwards said of Jackson. “And then I thought he just made some good individual moves that allowed them to gain some momentum as a group. Thought he caught it off the block a few times and made some moves, and I thought he attacked our guys off the dribble.”
Said James, “He was making tough shots, shots I’ve never seen him make before. He’s a good player, and he stepped up on a big stage.”
James nearly matched Jackson’s onslaught with 17 points of his own in the second half. His 3-pointer with 3:20 left got the Cowboys within a possession before Jordan Naughton’s dunk trimmed the deficit to 62-61, but Bragg got free inside for a layup that started a decisive 8-0 run for the Lobos, who advance to take on MW regular-season co-champion Utah State in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Turnovers that have plagued Wyoming all season helped ignite the surge for UNM, which opened the game with full-court pressure and never backed off. The Cowboys committed 16 turnovers — nine in the second half — leading to 15 points for the Lobos, who shot 42.9 percent from the field in the second half after shooting 27.6 percent in the first.
“There were a few times where they did speed us up,” James said. “We did a really good job in the first half just continuing to play our pace and get the right shots we wanted. But I feel like in the second half, it was kind of like a panic because they were making shots.”
James also didn’t get the help from his supporting cast that he got to neutralize Bragg’s production four days earlier. The Cowboys’ senior guard was one of five players to finish in double figures against the Lobos on Saturday, but Naughton (10 points) was the only other Cowboy to do that Wednesday.
Bragg still finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in his limited minutes. Keith McGee added 14 points while Makuach Maluach chipped in 13 for the Lobos. It was all too much to keep Wyoming’s season going.
“All credit to them,” James said. “They did their job. They followed the game plan and won the game.”