New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – At UNLV
Wednesday: New Mexico 68, UNLV 56
Saturday: 8:05 p.m. (MT) -- No. 6 San Diego State at New Mexico – The Pit
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
OK, now the Lobos can think it. Now the Lobos can say it: Bring on the Aztecs.
New Mexico kept the drama intact for Saturday’s Pit invasion by San Diego State, No. 6 in the latest Associated Press poll, by throwing out another impressive and dominant win. This time it was 68-56 over the UNLV Rebels in the Thomas & Mack Center.
And guess what? Lobo coach Craig Neal said he didn’t think his team played that well. No matter. The win was the big thing, the main thing, and sets the stage perfectly for what awaits Saturday in The Pit – Steve Fisher’s Aztecs.
“My guys will be ready. My guys will be focused. My guys have been waiting for it,” said Neal of Saturday’s Pit sellout. “It will be interesting.”
The Lobos’ win in Vegas wasn’t all that interesting. It was a win the Lobos made look easy because they raced to a 17-point lead in the second half.
But it also was a win that had a moment of tension as the Rebels cut that 17-point hole to 54-47 with 8:41 to play.
Only one problem with giving the Lobos a seven-point lead with 8:41 to go: the Lobos do too many things right and have too much talent to roll over. Even to Vegas’ intense pressure.
“I have never been more proud of a group of guys,” said Neal. “Tonight, we kind of put it all together and tonight, we didn’t always play very well. Kendall Williams was terrific, and Cameron Bairstow has had a monster year. He has been a beast.”
This was kind of a beastly Lobo win, too. It was a statement. It was a foot coming down on a neck.
The Lobos rolled out of Vegas holding UNLV to 20 fewer points than they scored in The Pit in UNLV’s 76-73 win over New Mexico. Vegas scored only 56 points on its home floor. UNM held the Runnin’ Rebels to 31.7 percent shooting while shooting 45.8 percent on the hostile floor.
The Lobos also got a monster game from Williams, who scored 29 points on 11-of-17 shooting while adding seven boards, three assists and two steals.
“I don’t know if there is anybody I’ve seen at the guard position who does what Kendall Williams does,” said Neal. “He guarded. He made jump shots. He passed the ball. He ran the offense. I got the best guard in the country.
"He is just one of those unique kids who just wants to go out and win and will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Bairstow was a tad off on his shooting, but still was dominant in the paint finishing with 18 points on 8-of-20 shooting. “Hey, that happens, but Kendall Williams goes for 29,” said Neal.
Alex Kirk added eight points and six boards playing only 16 minutes while fighting fouls. UNM had 44 rebounds to 39 for UNLV. The Rebels went 3-of-21 from long range, but went 13-of-26 from the free-throw line, where UNM went 8-of-15.
The win pushed UNM to 20-5 on the year and 11-2 in the Mountain West. Vegas falls to 17-9 and 8-5 and far away from any thoughts of a No. 2 finish in the MW race.
“It was a big-time win for us,” said Neal. “You have to give all the credit to our players."
The Lobos looked like they might cruise to an easy win going up 50-33 and 52-35. The Rebels came back. UNLV cut their hole to 54-45 with 9:26 to play and 54-47 at the 8:41 mark. UNM’s Williams hit a big trey to push UNM up 57-47 and Bairstow scored inside to keep UNM up by 10: 59-49. A Williams’ dunk made it 61-49 with 5:30 to play.
"Our guys were really focused on what we were trying to do,” said Neal. “Our guys are starting to get it now. They have always bought in, but it’s a question of growing as a team while understanding what you need to do. We still have a ceiling to get to. We still have a ways to go.”
A ceiling of sorts awaits the Lobos on Saturday. The Aztecs are a notch above New Mexico in the MW standings and coming into an arena that will be rocking. Like Neal said: it’s going to be interesting.
First Half: New Mexico 38, UNLV 29
The UNLV Rebels went into the half knowing exactly what they had to do in the second half: disrupt the Williams/Bairstow combo. Maybe get them to miss a few shots.
And maybe hope that Alex Kirk didn’t join the scoring party.
Williams and Bairstow combined for 28 of UNM’s 38 points with Williams getting 17 points and Bairstow adding 11 points. Kirk only scored four spending time on the bench with two fouls. UNM shot 59.3 percent from the floor with Williams going 7-of-9 and Bairstow going 5-of-8.
The Rebels had no double-digit scorers in the half, led by Khem Birch with seven points and nine boards. UNLV shot 33.3 percent from the floor going 1-of-10 from long range, but 8-of-18 from the line. UNM was 1-of-5 from the free-throw line.
The Lobos played well on offense and well on defense especially when you consider the athleticism UNLV puts on the floor.
UNM controlled the scoreboard throughout the half and was up 26-21 with 4:02 to play. A Bairstow two-handed dunk on a drive made it 28-21. A Williams’ jumper pushed UNM up 30-21 and a Williams’ trey made it 33-24. That score went into the media break at 2:14. Williams had 17 points at that mark and Williams and Bairstow had combined for 26 of UNM’s 33 points. UNM was shooting 58.3 percent at that point.
Merv Lindsay bounced in a trey to hand UNM a 10-point lead at 36-26 with 1:54 to play and UNM held on for the 38-29 halftime lead.