LAS VEGAS — New Mexico has teeter-tottered through peaks and valleys this season. On Thursday, the Lobos’ year ended with a late 75-70 collapse against Utah State in the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals.
Vance Jackson described Thursday’s loss as the most emotional game he has ever played in.
“Any loss hurts but this hurts the most because the season is over, and we have to start over,” Jackson said. “It’s so emotional because this whole season we have been through so much, dealt through so much adversities. We have built close relationships. Jackson said Coach Weir put so much effort. And not win, it just hurts. Especially with [Corey Manigault’s] last year, I wanted to win for him.”
Here’s Paul Weir’s opening statement after the loss:
UNM Lobo coach Paul Weir’s opening remarks at the postgame presser following the Lobos season-ending loss to Utah State on Thursday in Las Vegas... pic.twitter.com/t8HQxoWb6O— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 6, 2020
Mere hours before New Mexico’s biggest game of the season on Thursday afternoon, New Mexico’s locker room troubles plagued the team again. This time, point guard Vante Hendrix was sent home right after lunch.
New Mexico head coach Paul Weir did not give a definitive answer as to why Hendrix was sent home. When asked Hendrix removal and the indiscipline nature of his team, here is what he had to say:
“I guess it gets looked that way,” Weir said. “He didn’t do anything serious at all. Given the time the seriousness of the moment, but given the nature of how I wanted to treat this past week and what I wanted out of our guys, it just didn’t meet expectations.”
Throughout the season New Mexico made national news for all the wrong reasons: Their best big man Carlton Bragg was kicked off the team after being charged with a DWI in February. JaQuan Lyle made headlines when a shooting broke out during a party he hosted and on Thursday night, Vante Hendrix was sent back to Alberquerque on road trips, compounded by a series of other unexplained incidents, including getting benched during the second half of the Lobos’ 97-68 win over Wyoming on Feb. 8.
The off-the-court drama has handicapped one of the most talented rosters in the conference. It has become a major cultural problem for the program.
They arguably have the most talented roster in the conference, but Lobos have yet to fit the pieces to together-or even sell the idea they all like playing together.
Hendrix has been a primary cast member New Mexico reality TV-esque drama throughout the season. In his first 12 games of action, Hendrix has received five technical fouls, took his shirt off in the middle of a nationally televised game against Air Force in disgust, which prompted Weir to say after the game that he’s “still learning how to coach [Hendrix].”
“Still deciding if I want to coach him,” Weir elaborated to the Albuquerque Journal. “That’s probably the best way to put it.
Despite it all, Hendrix has become a fan favorite for some Lobo fans. New Mexico beat writer Geoff Grammer said Hendrix as an “energetic sophomore guard who is a favorite among some fans because he plays as hard as any Lobo.” The Utah transfer averaged 8.8 PPG in 18 games this season.
Here’s what Hendrix tweeted after the game:
Waiting to hear what I did too . But shoutout my dawgs , I know they going hold it down ‼️ https://t.co/S6ItpvnBoi— V1R4H (@Vante_Hendrix14) March 6, 2020
Paul Weir did not comment when asked if Hendrix will be on the team next year.
The Hendrix dismissal may have affected New Mexico to start the game. Utah State jumped out to 20-8 lead in the first 10 minutes. UNM had a lack of effort on defense and gave Utah State a series of open looks. However, after a timeout, Weir went to his bench and jump-started the Lobos.
“Our starting five hasn’t gotten us off to good starts,” Weir said afterwards. “It wasn’t a great group. Bringing in Kurt [Wegscheider] gave us a boost. He was +12 on the night.”
After the slow start, The Lobos seemed to put it all together. The Lobos cut down an early double-digit deficit to tie the game at the half.
At the beginning of the second half, the Lobos took control of the game. Utah State’s leading scorer Sam Merrill committed his 4th foul with 14:59 to play. The Lobos’ defensive pressure was bothering Utah State’s backcourt, while UNM got offensive production from Lyle (20 points), Manigault (18) and Jackson (11).
The Lobos lead by 11 with 9:59 remaining. Then Sam Merrill re-entered the game and he went off. Merrill scored 11 points in the final five minutes to will the Aggies to a comeback victory. Merrill finished with 29 despite being hampered by foul trouble.
Weir admitted he would be having nightmares about Merrill for a long time,
”Sam Merrill, Sam Merrill, Sam Merril, I’ll be seeing him in my dreams for a long time,” Weir said. “[He’s] Trey Kell, part two. He’s amazing. He kicked our ass. He kicked our ass. He’s an amazing player.”
This rollercoaster season was a bad memory that many Lobos fans will have a hard time forgetting. On the court, the Lobos finished 19-11, bringing Weir’s record to 79-52 (.602) during his time in Albuquerque. However, off-the-court storylines that have painted the university in a bad light lately.
“There’s a lot that went on this year in many different levels: On the court, off the court, each of the individual players, maybe myself, and then all of us collectively with our different relationships,” Weir said. “But I think at the end of the day, what I hope I’ve impressed upon them is just to keep a really good attitude in the face of adversity and just continue to work through it.”
Weir has looked over off-the-court red flags to secure talented transfers from other programs. Throughout the season that backfired on several occasions.
Next year, Weir will lose Lyle, his top scorer, and Manigault to graduation. Meanwhile, Jackson’s future is still in flux. The redshirt junior has an opportunity to turn pro or graduate with a degree from UNM and transfer to a higher-level program. Jackson did not comment on his future as a Lobo going forward. Bringing Jackson back to UNM will be Weir’s top priority.
Weir has been coach that has said all the right things about turning this program around but he has yet to do it. Weir needs to change the structure of how he builds this program, and at some point, he has to be accountable for the actions of his players.