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No. 25 UNM gearing up for first rematch of league play at Wyoming

Feb. 5—Once is never enough. Not in league action.

Such is the joy, and pain, of college basketball conference play.

While the No. 25 UNM Lobos managed to get the best of the Wyoming Cowboys, 77-60, in the Pit on Jan. 6, one month later they have to try and do it again — not only with the Cowboys well aware of what the Lobos did so well in the first meeting, but with the added bonus of a home-court advantage that in many years rivals that of the Pit.

Tuesday night's 6:30 p.m. tip-off in Laramie's Arena-Auditorium, home of the "Highest Court in the Land" with an elevation of 7,220 feet, is rematch No. 1 of Mountain West play for the Lobos (18-4, 6-3 Mountain West), but it isn't the first rematch of the season for the team.

And the result of the last rematch wasn't entirely promising for UNM.

The Lobos had a historic 44-point thumping of in-state rival New Mexico State in the Pit on Dec. 2 (106-62). Thirteen days later, the Aggies nearly pulled off the upset in the rivalry rematch in Las Cruces in a 73-72 Lobos win in the Pan Am Center on Dec. 15 — a 43-point turnaround that combined a very well-played and executed game by the Aggies and a clearly surprised Lobos team that didn't seem entirely convinced the rematch would be as difficult as it was.

"It is a good point of reference that, although we won by a lot here (in the first game against NMSU), it was a totally different game there," Lobos coach Richard Pitino said. "And so you can learn a lot — good, bad and whatever, from the first film. Don't just assume it's going to be the same game.

"They're talented enough to beat Nevada, they're talented enough to beat Colorado State," he said of the Cowboys. "They are a good team, and very, very well coached. And, you know, they did a great job of bringing in some good players. So we need to understand that, although we can take something from the first game, it'll be a totally new challenge. They run a lot of good stuff. It's always unique to play there. So we've got to be ready."

Added Lobo senior Jemarl Baker Jr., who is in his third season in the Mountain West having played the past two at Fresno State, a team might be better off just forgetting the first game ever happened.

"It's always different — more difficult the second (especially when you) win by a good margin the first time," Baker said. "Definitely a different challenge, but we have to go out and embrace it. It's a completely different game."

Wyoming (12-10, 5-4 MW) is 8-1 at home this season, 4-0 in Mountain West play. The Cowboys' past two home wins were over Nevada and Colorado State, teams still in the hunt for NCAA Tournament berths.

As for the Lobos, they are coming off a home loss to Boise State last week in which they, for the first time in six games, simply weren't able to generate points off turnovers, or many live-ball turnovers at all, as the Broncos often let forward Tyson Degenhart bring the ball up court. That negated Lobo senior point guard Jaelen House's intense, chaotic and disruptive on-ball defense on opposing guards, who normally bring the ball up court and try to set up a team's offense.

Wyoming tried a similar approach in the Jan. 6 game with forward Mason Walters, but only in the second half. The former NAIA Player of the Year picked up three first half fouls (in the first four minutes, actually) and wasn't used again until the second half. When he was back in, and at times bringing the ball up court, Wyoming made a run and cut the Lobos' lead to 7 points before running out of gas.

The Lobos managed to outscore Wyoming 28-0 in points off turnovers that game and force 23 turnovers in all.

UNM's second chance at a Mountain West rematch comes Saturday against UNLV, a team the Lobos will be looking to reverse the first outcome on. The Runnin' Rebels beat UNM 83-73 on Jan. 9 in Las Vegas, Nev.

SCHOLARSHIP: UNM junior forward Deraje Agbaosi, an Eldorado High School graduate and walk-on this season for the Lobos, has been given the team's open scholarship for the remainder of the season.

Agbaosi, who is redshirting this season, played the past two seasons at North Alabama, averaging 1.8 points and 2.3 rebounds.

"Deraje has been a great addition to our program," Pitino said. "He never has a bad day in practice and works hard to help our team get better every day. He is coachable and a great guy in the locker room. His future is bright and we are fortunate to be able to put him on scholarship this season. He has earned it and we are all very proud of him."

UNM had one open scholarship that it had kept open in case there was a mid-season transfer it wanted to recruit and add to the roster at the semester break. It did not so so.

IT'S ABOUT TIME! Pitino understands the necessity of exposure and a good television broadcast contract.

That doesn't mean the coach of a Lobos team that has had all seven of its night games so far in Mountain West play start at 8:05 p.m. Mountain Time, or later, likes it.

So, come on, coach. Tell us how you really feel.

"I hate the late starts. I hate everything about them so much," said Pitino. "They are the bane of my existence. I despise them so much. But I understand there's nothing any of us can do. But it drives me insane."

Reminded that this week he has a pair of "early" night game starts for the first time in league play with a 6:30 start Tuesday in Laramie and 6 p.m. in the Pit on Saturday against UNLV, Pitino perked up.

"I may wear shorts. Sandals," Pitino said. "They're great. I love it."

RANKING: Despite a home loss to Boise State last week, the Lobos were indeed ranked again in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 poll, which was released while Pitino was talking to media.

When a reporter informed him of the news that they were still ranked this week, Pitino let out a dramatic, and fully sarcastic, sigh of relief.

"Oh, thank God!" he said. Of course, he was still curious and asked what his team was ranked (No. 25). He then acknowledged that while there is good attention and program recognition that comes from being ranked, he's more in tune with the NCAA's NET rankings and KenPom rankings, computer-generated polls that measure team performance and are used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to decide who gets into the NCAA Tournament.

UNM, by the way, was ranked No. 18 in the NET and 19 in KenPom on Monday — both tops in the Mountain West.