Game Recap: New Mexico 89, Southern Utah 81
New Mexico holds off the Thunderbirds in 2022-2023 season opener.
Jaelen House helps lead the Lobos past a pesky Southern Utah team in season opener
ALBUQUERQUE, NM–The New Mexico Lobos kicked off their 2022-2023 college basketball season Monday night. As they played host to Todd Simon and his Southern Utah Thunderbirds.
There has been plenty of hype surrounding the Lobos program this offseason. With the return of five of their top six scorers and six players who started ten games or more last season. Not to mention a successful transfer class filled with the very thing New Mexico lacked last season, experienced bigs. Everything in Albuquerque seemed primed for a Lobo resurgence, beginning Monday night with a true test of an opener.
Fast forward to opening night, with a Southern Utah squad trending upward of late making their first trip back to the Pit since 2007. Plenty has changed since then, the Thunderbirds are on their third conference. Currently in their inaugural season in the revamped WAC, after spending a decade in the Big Sky Conference.
Former UNLV assistant and interim head coach Todd Simon is building Southern Utah into quite the formidable foe, the Lobos experienced that Monday night.
The first game of the season will always bring jitters and display some sloppy gameplay. Practicing all summer will hardly ever prepare you for live action in front of thousands of fans inside The Pit.
The Lobos took control early, leading the Thunderbirds almost the entire night. New Mexico’s athletic dominance was on display early, but their high intensity play on both ends led to foul trouble for all involved. A grand total of fifty fouls were called throughout the night, and the Lobos response to the referees whistle on both sides of the ball was what kept things close but also led to the victory at home.
Big runs from a few players kept Southern Utah in the game. That and how each team dealt with fouls all night long. In the first half the Thunderbirds drew plenty, and executed going 7-8 on free ones. Also drawing several offensive calls on the Lobos on the other end.
While the home team shot similarly throughout the night, around meager 66.7% both halves. They were able to draw contact and get to the free throw line nearly three times as much as their opponents. Giving the Lobos the slight edge in what was otherwise a toe-for-toe shootout, with very whistle happy officials.
New Mexico: Jaelen House, 23 points, 7 assists & 6 steals in 32 minutes on the court
The return of spark plug Jaelen House to Albuquerque was maybe one of the biggest “recruiting wins” of the offseason. After testing NBA Draft waters last summer, House announced his return to New Mexico. Immediately making the Lobos sleeper team in the Mountain West.
House brings a level of shot creation and ball distribution, the program hadn’t seen in years. But what makes him a game changer all himself is his non-stop energy and fight. House puts up numbers, in a little bit of every category while he’s on the floor. He was seen leading the fast break, draining threes and anchoring the perimeter defense all night. Finishing with six steals and seven assists with only one turnover. His non-stop motor and offensive fluidity helped fend off our next highlighted hot handed player in the second half.
— Lobo Basketball (@UNMLoboMBB) November 8, 2022
Southern Utah: Tevian Jones, 28 points, 5 rebounds on 6-12 shooting from deep, all in 24 minutes of action
Trailing nearly the entire night the Thunderbirds never waivered. Even with the Lobo lead reaching double digits multiple times Monday night, senior guard Tevian Jones led the attack.
The former Big Ten guard at Illinois has been what you can imagine a high major transplant in mid-major basketball would be, fun to watch. His big time frame and athleticism combined with guard skills have earned him All-Big Sky Conference honors twice since arriving in Cedar City and Monday’s display of scoring shows why.
Hmmm thought the bank closed at 5 🤔
— SUU Men's Basketball (@SUUBasketball) November 8, 2022
Jones started this one out very cold, logging only 4 points in the first half off of 1-3 shooting from the field and going 0-2 from deep. He would come out after halftime like a man possessed, logging a quick 10 points in the first five minutes of the second half.
Keeping his squad in the game single handedly at times, Jones (6-7, 197) utilized his six inch height advantage over the Lobos’ best defender Jamal Mashburn Jr. (6-2, 195). Although Mashburn made Jones reach into his bag of tricks and make tough shots, he in turn netted his fare share of those shots.
The preseason All-WAC First Team selection showed just what foes in conference play are not looking forward to later this year. Jones turned it on, when his team needed it most. Finishing with a game-high 28 points & 5 rebounds while shooting 52.6% from the field and 50% from three point territory, all in just twenty four minutes. And that’s why he gets out Southern Utah highlighted player of the game.
- The Lobos don’t appear to have as much frontcourt depth as we may have hoped for at the moment. Sophomore Swedish big man Sebastian Forsling was held out of Monday night’s matchup with ankle injury. Also on the sidelines in plain clothes was redshirt junior guard Emmanuel Kuac, who often gets minutes in the paint. With that, early foul trouble for the rest of the Lobo big men caused them to play reserved. Avoiding fouling out of the game and decreasing a defensive intensity that gave them the edge early on.
- Freshman point guard Donovan Dent is going to be real special. Providing relief for primary ball handlers Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. Monday night and turned in a solid performance. The 6-2 true freshman from Riverside, CA saw 11 minutes of action against the Thunderbirds. Logging just 2 points but grabbing an offensive board and dishing out 3 assists with 0 turnovers in that time. Where he displayed room for improvement was his work from the charity stripe. Showing an ability to draw contact, but contributing to the Lobos’ woes from the free throw line overall (24-36, 66.7%) with a 2-5 performance.
- Coach Pitino’s new frontcourt-compliments of the transfer portal- proved formidable and maybe just the right mix of both worlds against the Thunderbirds. While graduate transfer Morris Udeze made his impact on the score, contributing 14 points on the night as the Lobos third double digit scorer. Fellow transfer forward Josiah Allick logged no points but made up in an area Udeze lacked with 8 rebounds and a blocked shot in his 21 minutes of play. Yes both are different types of bigs, but a little more contributions from each player where they lacked Monday night could really propel the Lobos forward.
- The one-two punch of Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. is once again keeping fans loud and on their feet in Albuquerque this season. Their announced return during the offseason was surely some of the biggest news around the Mountain West. Both compliment each other so well in the one and two positions. And with Third Team All-Mountain West honors for both of them last season and Mashburn Jr.’s recognition last month as a Preseason All-Conference selection. The sky’s the limit for these two this year, and Lobo fans are ready.
- Lastly, this team’s identity feels oddly similar to last season. With House and Mashburn leading the offensive charge and those around them working in between. Now, different are the new complimentary pieces like Udeze, Allick and Dent. But with some lackluster performances against Southern Utah, we saw a high energy House doing what he does best, which is a big of everything honestly. And Jamal Mashburn Jr. doing what he does best, scoring a team high 24 points while doing so a tad under the radar and VERY efficiently (53.8% FGs, 2-3 3FGs & 8-9 FTs). To be different than last year’s squad we need to see others step up and clean up the mistakes. Yes, it’s early in the season but progress towards more efficient scoring and defensive efforts should go miles in the right direction come January.
New Mexico prepares to play host once more this week. As they welcome Richie Riley and his South Alabama Jaguars to The Pit this Friday. Southern Utah was no cake walk and maybe a combination of let’s say “strict” officiating and first game jitters will be long behind the Lobos later this week.
But keeping with coach Pitino’s confidence in his squad and challenging non-conference slate, South Alabama will be another early season gauge of the Lobos battle readiness. That matchup tips-off at 7:00 PM MST, and can be streamed live on the Mountain West Network.
Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.