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Feb. 23—In dire need of a slump buster, the Lobos found one in the form of a team dinner and a little time together in a social setting.
Riding high from a rare home-cooked meal courtesy of assistant coach Dave Pilipovich's family last weekend, the University of New Mexico men's basketball team won its first game in more than a month Monday night. Lobos big men Valdir Manuel and Byron Matos combined for 27 points, and senior Makuach Maluach had 22, leading UNM to a 73-65 win over Air Force at Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo.
It snapped a five-game losing streak punctuated by four canceled games due to COVID-19, not to mention the threat of shutting the season down after a never-ending road trip took its toll on the players' mental health.
The boost the Lobos (6-13 overall, 2-13 Mountain West) needed came in the form of Pilipovich's hospitality. In his first year as an assistant on head coach Paul Weir's staff, Pilipovich served on Air Force's coaching staff from 2007-2020 and spent the past eight years as the Falcons' head coach. He and his wife still own a home in Colorado Springs.
Following the Lobos' two-game series against Wyoming last week, his family opened its doors to the team Saturday night.
Weir said it was the first time the entire team had gotten together for a sit-down meal all season. Every other time was eating prepackaged food on the run or in the privacy of a hotel room.
"I'm thankful to UNM for allowing us to do it," Weir said. "We have asked permission for things before, but with COVID policies and protocols it's just not something that has ever really been allowed, to go somewhere as a team or to do things. Yeah, again, I hope I'm not misspeaking but it's the first time I can remember being with the entire group — eating, hanging out, having fun, enjoying each other."
Unlike the team's previous game, the start of Monday's contest was at least a positive one. UNM spotted Wyoming a 21-0 lead in a loss late last week but led Air Force 10-2 a few minutes in and held the lead through the rest of the first half.
Statistically speaking, Air Force came into the game as the worst rebounding team of the 340 clubs in Division I. Weir wanted to exploit that, utilizing the 6-9 Matos and 6-10 Manuel. He said the plan was to go to them until the pair proved they weren't up to the task.
Manuel hit all seven of his shot attempts and had 14 points while Matos was 6-for-7 with seven rebounds and a pair of rim-rocking dunks.
"That was a big one because we needed one; we needed one for ourselves, our coaches and [the] Lobo family," Matos said. "It was a great feeling."
Sophomore guard Emmanuel Kuac only had nine points, but three of his four field goals were emphatic slam dunks while the other was a key 3-pointer. He scored five of those points in a decisive 7-0 run that broke a 54-all tie with seven minutes left.
His monstrous two-handed dunk off a feed from Manuel with nine minutes left was put on Twitter by CBS Sports Network, which televised the game. The caption read, "Late entry for dunk of the year!"
"Hopefully," Kuac said moments after the game. "I haven't seen it. I haven't even found my phone yet but our cameraman got a couple of good pictures."
Kuac said one of his greatest areas of growth this season is learning to play with his head and not his raw energy. UNM coaches have said all season that the 6-foot-7 wing has a motor like few others on the roster, but reeling in that energy and channeling it into smart play has been a work in progress.
With Air Force battling back to take a lead in the second half, it was Kuac's play that helped stabilize what had been a shaky start for the Lobos after halftime.
Same, too, for the bigs. Weir said the loss of UNM assistant Scott Padgett to COVID-19-related issues earlier this month hurts the low-post development. Hired to coach the bigs, Padgett missed the first month of preseason workouts due to COVID-19 policies and hasn't been with the team for the last several weeks since his exposure to the virus during a trip to Colorado State.
"I feel for them in the standpoint that I hired Scott Padgett for a reason," Weir said. "He hasn't really got the time that I promised them and he kind of vowed to them [the bigs]. It's been a lot remotely and different things, but I think they're both [Manuel and Matos] tremendously talented players."
After the final horn, the Lobos joined Pilipovich on the court and formed a straight line extending from sideline to sideline. There they stood arm in arm across the court as the Air Force players stood at attention for the service academy's school song was piped through the arena.
It may have been a road game for the road-weary Lobos, but at least Pilipovich was there to provide a little home cooking for a team that desperately needed it.
MWC: The Lobos officially left the basement with Monday's win, leap-frogging Air Force and taking over 10th place. The Falcons have now lost 10 games in a row and fell to 4-17 overall and 2-14 in the standings.
Slow start: UNM's baseball team wrapped up its season-opening tournament appearance in Surprise, Ariz., with a 5-2 loss to Oregon State on Monday afternoon. The Lobos lost three of their four games, including two to the Beavers.