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Enchanted victory: Lobos badger Cowboys in Mountain West home opener

Jan. 6—With stars in the house and the sun on their chest, the UNM Lobos bounced back just fine from their conference-opening loss earlier in the week for a comfortable 77-60 win over the visiting Wyoming Cowboys in the Pit on Saturday night.

Wearing bright yellow, state flag-themed jersey while former NBA stars Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Cooper were in attendance, the Lobos rode a strong defensive performance, scoring 28 points off 23 Wyoming turnovers to even their Mountain West record at 1-1 and improve to 13-2 overall.

"It was a team effort all around," Richard Pitino said. "Guys played really good defense down the stretch when we needed to. Obviously turning them over 18 times in the first half, 23 for the game was terrific. And the crowd was amazing. I mean, it was electric. Obviously Shaq, Michael Cooper being here was awesome to see. But more than anything, our guys are fueled by the energy from our fans."

Jaelen House led the defensive charge against the overmatched Cowboys, coming up with all five of his steals in the first half, countering a brutal 3-of-15 shooting night. He did have 10 points, four rebounds and five assists as well. UNM had 16 steals on the night, the most vs. a Mountain West opponent since they had 19 in a game vs. Colorado State in 2005.

Wyoming's 23 turnovers were a season high, just four days after posting a season low five in a win vs. San Jose State. UNM's six turnovers was a season low.

Donovan Dent led four Lobos in double-digit scoring with 21 points in front of an announced crowd of 12,611 in the Pit.

Wyoming got into foul trouble in the first half, including starting forward and 2023 NAIA Player of the Year Mason Walters picking up his third foul by the 16-minute mark of the first half.

UNM took advantage.

The Lobos used first-half scoring runs of 7-0, 9-0 and 9-0 to increase the lead to as many as 19 points on a Mustapha Amzil 3-pointer with 2:47 left in the opening half. UNM led 39-22 lead at halftime and had a 20-0 advantage in points off turnovers.

But the Cowboys, with Walters back on the floor, came out of the second half far more composed and under control. They went on a quick 13-4 run capped by a Walters layup that cut the Lobo lead to single digits at 43-35 with 16:18 showing on the second half clock, leading to a Pitino timeout.

"We weren't playing good defense and they're really good," Pitino explained of that early second half run by the Cowboys. "He (Wyoming coach Jeff Linder) runs great stuff. He's a terrific coach. And I thought they'd have another punch in them."

Dent said the Lobos simply let up with their intensity coming out of the break and let Wyoming get back in the game.

"It was more so on us. We just let up on the defensive end," Dent said. "First half, we were all over the ball. I think we had like 18 turnovers first half. We just kind of let up second half and we gotta be better at that."

The Lobos struggled, again, at the free throw line, hitting 14-of-22 on the night (63.6%) and are now ranked 10th out of 11 teams in the Mountain West at free throw shooting, which is a change from the past two seasons when the team was able to use the charity stripe as an offensive weapon much more than this season.

Sam Griffin led the Cowboys with 18 points and six rebounds, but also had six turnovers. Forward Cam Manyawu came off the bench for 11 points and nine rebounds and Walters managed 10 points.

For the Lobos, Pitino credits the balance of the scoring with Dent leading the charge at 21 and five others scoring between 8 and 12 points.

Nelly Junior Joseph struggled to finish near the rim with 3-of-11 shooting, but had 10 points, 9 rebounds (8 of them offensive boards) and three steals.

SHAQ: NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal took some time away from his business trip to Albuquerque on Saturday night to attend the first half the the Lobos game.

O'Neal, a friend of UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez from their past LSU connections, was in Albuquerque to perform as DJ Diesel at Revel Entertainment on Saturday night, but was first welcomed to a huge ovation, on more than one occasion, by the Pit crowd.

COOP, TOO: Lobo legend Michael Cooper was honored on the court during the game and then ran over to courtside to give a hug to his fellow former Los Angeles Lakers great, O'Neal.Both Cooper and O'Neal were gifted Lobos uniforms with their names on them.BOX SCORE: New Mexico 77, Wyoming 60EMPTYING THE NOTEBOOK: More notes, quotes, stats and other odds & ends from Saturday's game.