Rivalry series often consist of peaks and valleys, especially one that dates back to 1904.
New Mexico has certainly enjoyed the lion’s share of recent success against New Mexico State on the basketball court. The Lobos had won seven straight against the Aggies prior to last season, when the Aggies won for the first time at The Pit since 2002. The teams still split the series last year as the Lobos won at the Pan American Center to record their eighth victory in the last nine meetings with NMSU.
Here are five things the Aggies have to do to swing the rivalry back to their favor when the teams meet again on Saturday at The Pit in Albuquerque:
Closing time: The Lobos have certainly earned their 10-0 record and No. 17 ranking. UNM won 28 games last year, winning 22 games by a double-digit margin. The Lobos have already won six games by double digits this season, including come-from-behind efforts against Davidson and George Mason. The biggest difference between the in-state rivals this year appears to be their ability in the final minutes. Whether it’s discipline, execution or just good luck, the Lobos have found ways to grind out wins while the Aggies have lost second-half leads to Niagara and UTEP. Even in a road win at South Alabama on Dec. 4, the Aggies nearly lost a 17-point advantage. NMSU was 6-for-10 from the foul line in the last eight minutes, but the Jaguars were equally inept at 5-for-12 in the second half. The Aggies haven’t struggled in the opening minutes this season. If they are fortunate enough to build a lead on the road on Saturday, the Aggies won’t emerge victorious if their streaky play down the stretch continues.
Win the 3-point battle: The Aggies held the Lobos to 28 percent shooting from the floor last year in a 62-53 victory at The Pit, the lowest percentage for a Steve Alford team. UNM was 7-for-19 from the 3-point line, including off nights for key returners Kendall Williams (0-for-4), Tony Snell (3-for-6) and Demetrius Walker (1-for-2). The Lobos score 27 percent of their 73 points per game from 3-point range and shoot 33 percent from 3-point range. Guarding the 3 has been an Aggies’ strength for the past two years, illustrated by Bandja Sy’s game-sealing block of Phillip McDonald’s 3-point attempt in the final minute last year. Sy and sophomore guard Daniel Mullings match up well against Snell and Williams. The Aggies would also be served well by hitting a few 3s of their own as UNM opponents have shot 34 percent against the Lobos from 3-point range. Mullings has knocked down open shots this year, shooting 57 percent from 3-point range this year. His teammates need to do the same.
Limit turnovers: Turnovers have been coming fast and at inopportune times for the Aggies this season. NMSU turns the ball over 25 percent of the time or 17 times per game. The Aggies committed 17 turnovers against South Alabama. UNM doesn’t pressure teams into turnovers, forcing just 13 per game, but the Lobos have length on the wings that can easily make the Aggies pay for lazy passes.
Free throw disparity: The Lobos are taking a page out of NMSU’s playbook from a year ago, using the free throw line to its advantage. The difference is the Lobos are not only getting to the foul line, but shooting 76.6 percent from the line, ranking 18th nationally. UNM leads the country with 21.6 made free throws per game and the Lobos are third with 28.2 free throw attempts per game. The Aggies attempt 25 free throws per game so NMSU can neutralize the Lobos at the line if they improve on the 66 percent mark from the line so far this season.
For WAC’s sake: The Western Athletic Conference is starving for quality wins and a victory over the No. 17 Lobos would be the league’s best win by a wide margin. The WAC was 37-37 overall entering Monday. The Mountain West by contrast has been among the best leagues in the country, going 57-16 in the non conference with a number of signature wins and a No. 5 RPI ranking. NMSU can boast the league’s best win with a 68-60 win against Southern Mississippi, along with Louisiana Tech’s victory over the same Southern Miss team and a Utah State victory over Santa Clara.