ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Even in a loss, Danny Sprinkle saw the resolve from Montana State he was hoping for.
Just three days after losing at South Dakota State, the Bobcats held a second-half lead against New Mexico on Saturday only to see it slip away in the final minutes. The Lobos, led by 21 points from Jamal Mashburn Jr., claimed an 81-78 win at The Pit in front of 9,084 fans.
MSU’s performance, offensively and defensively, was a stark contrast to Wednesday’s game in which the Jackrabbits shot 59% from the field. UNM still shot well (47.3%). But Sprinkle, MSU's head coach, said he was happy to see a more engaged defense.
“I saw our guys competing. I saw our guys in a stance with some urgency, contesting shots high, being physical and more importantly guarding the drive,” he said. “We made them earn their 81 points. I don’t want to give up 81, but they got terrific players that made some tough shots, and you’ve got to live with that.”
MSU (1-3) went ahead 66-62 on a Jubrile Belo dunk with 6 minutes remaining. The Lobos (3-1) chipped away and went ahead for good at 70-68 with a jumper by Mashburn with 3:34 left.
UNM built its lead to as many as five over the rest of the game. A RaeQuan Battle 3-pointer with 2 seconds left brought MSU within 80-78. New Mexico’s KJ Jenkins split a pair of free throws at the end for a three-point buffer. Xavier Bishop missed a tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
Belo tallied 15 points and seven rebounds for MSU, but he also committed four fouls, which Sprinkle said was tough to overcome.
Tyler Patterson led MSU with 16 points. Bishop (10 points), Battle (10) and Abdul Mohamed (11) also finished with double-digit points.
Sprinkle said the team’s coaches challenged the players in film sessions over the previous few days in hopes of sparking a better defensive showing.
“The effort and the pride that they were taking in their individual defense wasn’t there on Wednesday, where it was there tonight,” he said. “It showed a lot of resolve and showed what our guys are made of.”
He added that Mashburn, along with Jaelen House (eight points), Jenkins (17) and Gethro Muscadin (18) came up with big plays when they had to. Mashburn and House are the sons of former NBA players Jamal Mashburn and Eddie House.
“The hard thing to do is when they have Mashburn and House, those are two guards who can get their own shot at any time,” Sprinkle said. “They made some tough shots at critical times, especially Mashburn late.”
Montana State returns to action next week in San Antonio in a tournament hosted by Incarnate Word. The Bobcats will face Portland, UIW and Southeast Missouri in consecutive days starting the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Sprinkle is hopeful the experience of playing in front of large crowds at UNM and SDSU will toughen up his team for the rest of the season.
“It’s a huge home court advantage,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to bring my team here. It’s a tremendous place to play. This game is going to help us in league just like South Dakota State will.”