ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — JaQuan Lyle scored 20 points with four assists before fouling out to lead New Mexico to an 84-78 victory over Air Force on Saturday night.
But two big blocks from the Lobos' Zane Martin and Corey Manigault in the closing minutes when Air Force trailed by just three helped the Lobos (15-3, 4-1 Mountain West Conference) secure the victory.
“These guys in those moments have made big plays all year long when the game has been in the balance,” New Mexico coach Paul Weir said. “We just seem to make big plays.”
While those plays were pivotal it was indicative of the difference between the lineups, Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said.
“I thought it was a good college basketball game,” he said. “Two teams played their hearts out and competed. The difference was their length and their athleticism. A couple of times, we had it to three in the second half, one possession. Their size and length is something you can’t duplicate. They’re a very good basketball team.”
The Falcons (8-9, 2-3) got a season-high 26 points and nine boards from Lavelle Scottie, but he had little help inside as the Lobos held a 44-36 scoring advantage in the paint. Caleb Morris had 12 points for Air Force, but it took him 13 shots to get there.
It’s the 11th straight time the Lobos have beaten Air Force in Albuquerque and they are 13-0 at home this season.
Air Force’s Ryan Swan, who had success shutting down prior big men, came up exposed by the Lobos' insiders as Manigault was uncontested most of the game inside to finish with 16 points and six rebounds and Carlton Bragg, still getting his legs back after a three-game suspension, had 11 points and seven boards.
A goal coming into the game for the Lobos was to stifle the Air Force deep game and they succeed, limited the Falcons to 8-for-28 shooting on 3-pointers.
“Their length bothered us and pushed us out,” Pilipovich said. “We took some 3s that were deeper than we normally take and that was due to them. They were bigger at all five positions and their guards are big. They forced us away a little bit and that was definitely a factor.
The Lobos outscored Air force by eight points from the free-throw line and also enjoyed a 26-7 advantage on fast-break points.
Weir said he’d like to take credit, but he had to hand it to the players.
“These guys just find ways to win and they have all year long,” he said. “It’s a testament to our players, they’re resiliency. When you get in those moments, I think we all have psychological things going on. Our confidence. Our stress. Can we make a winning play?”
Air Force: The loss renders the Falcons upset of Utah State immaterial as they remain in the middle of the conference standing
New Mexico: The Lobos’ win keeps them among the conference leaders, and leaves them one loss behind the San Diego State, which they host on Jan. 29.
A turning point could have occurred when New Mexico team leader Lyle fouled out with 3:45 remaining.
“In a weird way, I’m kind of happy it happened because it forced everyone to realize that life does go on a little bit,” Weir said. “He was the loudest on the bench. He was coaching. He was in every time out, trying to help us, trying to win the game. It says a lot about his leadership that it doesn’t always have to be on the court.”
Pilipovich said he thought that could have proved to be the difference.
“He’s good player,” Pilipovich said of Lyle. “ He’s a really good player. I thought we got one of their best players, if not their best player, out of the game., then it helps us down the stretch. But we just didn’t overcome it.”
Air Force: The Falcons are at home Jan. 15 against Boise State
New Mexico: The Lobos are at Colorado State on Jan. 15.
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