THE MODERATOR: We're joined by New Mexico. Coach, if you could make some opening remarks about tonight's game.
COACH NEAL: Thought it was a very good game. I was a little concerned going into the game because I think Rodney's done an unbelievable job the second half of the season with his players and his team. They were on a pretty good streak, 9 of their last 12. Good come‑from‑behind victory last night.
I tried to make sure our guys understood the importance of tonight's game. When you get in a tournament of this caliber, this magnitude, every game's a championship game.
Really proud of my guys. I thought we had excellent leadership tonight. Really proud of the two‑headed monster, Bairstow and Kirk, they're as good as anybody in the country in the paint. I thought Kendall Williams did an outstanding job controlling tempo and guarding Tyler Johnson. He's always done a great job on him and held him to two points, which was key tonight. It's like I told the guys, we win and advance. We're looking forward to the next matchup. Excited.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for the student‑athletes.
Q. Kendall, talked to you Monday about getting the bigs touches down the stretch. Everybody is trying to prevent the post touches. Talk about you and the guards' concentration on making sure they were getting touches all night.
KENDALL WILLIAMS: Making sure they're involved. When we talked the other day, there was a stretch this game they didn't get all the touches. They were subbing in and out with fouls, then they pressed us. I think what really happened over the weekend helped us mature against the full court pressure, just not only focusing on getting it past halfcourt but also executing our game plan and making sure we stay inside out with that pressure.
I feel very confident where we're at. We can handle a lot of different looks. We just got to keep the bigs involved because they're going to bring us home the majority of the time.
Q. Cameron, between you and Alex, you had 70 pounds on both of Fresno State' bigs. Did you expect it to be like that?
CAMERON BAIRSTOW: We knew that regardless of how they're going to match up with us, whether the four‑man takes Alex, the five‑man takes me, or vice versa, there was going to be a mismatch down there. I think we exploited it for the most part throughout the game.
We really did a good job of I think handling the trap in most situations, which a lot of teams have been doing against us. It's different than what we're used to. I think we managed to handle it pretty well.
Q. Was there anything about focus, coming back to Vegas, all the fans around, the different setting with the tournament, having to sit on the fact that you just had that loss that bothered you? Any problem in getting that focus going for tonight after the way the regular season ended?
CAMERON BAIRSTOW: I think we jumped out to a 13‑3 lead. We started exactly the way we were meant to. So I thought we did a great job starting it off there. Unfortunately we didn't push it out the way we wanted to for the rest of the first half.
But I think we did a good job being ready and coming back after a couple days off. I think in some ways it was good for us to clear our heads from that loss. Hopefully we can continue the quick starts which haven't necessarily been there the whole season.
Q. Kendall, it seemed like they were throwing the press at you for quite a bit of tonight's game. You were able to break through and attack the basket hard. Talk about what you were able to do.
KENDALL WILLIAMS: We've been working on that. What happened Saturday, talking about the San Diego State game, they were able to throw a zone defense at us that a lot of teams don't prepare for.
We've prepared for every type of zone. I think that's been a positive for us because now we've overanalyzed situations and overprepared, which is never a bad thing.
If teams want to do that, if they want to press up and try to be physical, there were a lot of fouls called tonight, and we had some turnovers in the first half. But eventually we figured it out. It's something where we really needed to buckle down. Having veteran guards, there's no excuse not to be mentally and physically strong with the ball and keep our game plan intact.
Q. Cameron, you had a lot of fouls and free throws last time you played and this time. How important is it for you to be able to convert those free throws?
CAMERON BAIRSTOW: It's always going to be important getting to the free‑throw line, firstly. We understand that it is the highest percentage play in basketball. We want to get there as much as possible. Tonight I think we did a good job converting it.
But just by getting there yourself, it means you're being aggressive. That's going to be a key moving forward as the post‑season comes along. At the end of conference, you stop getting a number of calls. That was the difference between the game here and the game at Fresno. At the same time you have to continue being aggressive and attacking. When you get there, it obviously helps to knock 'em down.
Q. How much improved is the Fresno State team that you just faced earlier this season?
CAMERON BAIRSTOW: I think they've been playing very well. When we played them, we were up pretty early on in the game. Even though they came back at the very end with a lot of foul calls, I felt like for the most part we had their number. But you see today, and you saw yesterday, when they came back from behind when they were down big. We didn't really close out till the very end. It was always kind of, you know, almost like a 10‑point game. They were always in attacking distance.
I think they've improved a lot. They got good guard play as well as their four man does make it difficult with a pick and pop. I think offensively they're a great team. Unfortunately for them we were just able to get too much on offense tonight.
KENDALL WILLIAMS: Like Cam said, really improved. I think it was a tough first‑round game for us in terms of their versatility from their one through five spot. Their five man really came to play today. We have two bigs inside that are a load. So a team like that that's not built ready to defend our four and five is going to see trouble unless they're really efficient from the floor.
Guard play is really good. Obviously well‑coached. They play their butts off throughout the entire game.
It's a good win for us. Any win for us is a good win for us at this point, but I got a lot of respect for Fresno State.
Q. Kendall, I love the way this team has responded from losses all year. I don't know if it's a conscious or subconscious thing. Talk about the way this team has responded. Do you feel you have something to prove?
KENDALL WILLIAMS: We have good leadership. We have really good leadership. It starts at the top. No one likes losing. This has been a program that's never liked to lose. Our coaching staff doesn't like to lose. Our veterans don't like to lose. Now it's rubbed off on our new guys.
It's something that was nice to get off to that jump. We felt really comfortable coming in. At this point there's no losses to respond to. If you lose, you're done. You're done for this tournament and then the next tournament.
It's nice that we can respond to losses like that. But this team is really locked in right now. I like the vibe of our team. I like the leadership of our team. If anything, that loss is a positive for us and we just have a lot of drive right now. We're going to take it one game at a time. Obviously the old cliché. I feel really good about where this team's at right now.
Q. I know you stress the one game at a time, not looking beyond this tournament for the NCAAs. Coach Terry had praise for you and said you're going to be a Sweet 16 team. What does it mean to have another coach think of you in such high regard?
KENDALL WILLIAMS: We were back there listening to him. It meant a lot to us. I know it meant a lot to Coach Neal and Cam. Especially when you go and play someone, like I said, they played their tails off, we competed just as hard. Being a senior, Cam being a senior, some of the losses we had, how last year ended, it's nice to have that prediction from a coach you just played.
We are taking it one game at a time. We're not going to settle for a good victory tonight. We're going to try to win this championship and really assert ourselves in the NCAA tournament. That's been a theme for this team the entire year.
We're going to go and watch who wins this Boise State/Nevada game, prepare for them, then hopefully prepare for a championship, then go from there.
THE MODERATOR: We'll continue with questions for coach.
Q. 31 games into this, you haven't been asked this in a while, this is your first Mountain West tournament game as a head coach. The fans showed up like they have. You guys have established something here for a few years. Any nerves going into this one or just another regular‑season game for you?
COACH NEAL: It was kind of funny because we were walking here down the long hallway. Kendall kept talking to Cam, Have you been this way? Have you ever been down here? He forget Cam was all‑tournament. Cam was looking at me, I go, I know, I haven't been down this hallway. Because it's my first time. Kendall goes, I'm sorry, coach, I keep forgetting. I was with you the six years before that, I just haven't been up here.
Really wasn't nervous. Prepared for it. But anxiety because you want your team to win. You don't want to let your kids down. I think I was a little bit more anxious than nervous. But there's always pressure in any tournament you go into because you lose, you're out.
These kids have meant a lot to our program. They've done unbelievable things for our program. You just want them to reap the benefits of it. Just really glad the way they played tonight.
Q. Obviously the bigs, 42 points. Nothing new for them. What do you do, if anything different, to make sure they got touches throughout the game?
COACH NEAL: I really didn't do anything different. I don't usually wave a magic wand and change things up a lot. I think I just put them in different spots.
The unique thing about our team is we've seen every imaginable defense you can see. If it's trapping from big to big, trapping from the guard at the top, trapping from the passer, if we get pressed. We've seen about every press there's been played in college basketball.
I think our guys have really responded, been really resilient on seeing different looks, responding, making the right plays. We were just fortunate enough that Cameron and Alex had a good night. You got to give credit to Kendall and Hugh for leading them and being unselfish. I thought we got good bench play. Good minutes from guys. I kind of rolled the dice in the second half and went four guards.
We can play a lot of different ways. But it's one of those things, those guys are really, really good. We didn't change much, we just put them in different spots and ran different plays than we have. We probably have about 60 plays that we have run this year. It's hard to prepare for that many.
Q. You mentioned leading up to the game you talked to your players about how hot Fresno State had been. What exactly did you tell them? I assume they got the message.
COACH NEAL: I just told them, I said, You've had an unbelievable year. You can't have a letdown. This isn't the same team you played in January. They've all matured. Rodney has done an unbelievable job with them. They play hard.
The reason why they're dangerous is they have so many options to score. They can really score it. We've been fortunate just to be able to score the ball. Early in the year our offense was way ahead of our defense. Now I think our defense has overtaken our offense. But our offense is still really, really good.
But they're talented. They've got talent. They don't stop. We were just fortunate enough that Tyler didn't have a big game. A lot of that is because of Kendall Williams. He played unbelievable defense on him. We had a good game plan defensively. Very fortunate. They did play really well at the end of the year.
Q. Kendall mentioned it was a tough matchup for you guys. What did you think about the draw? Fresno State is a team you didn't want to face with how hot they've been?
COACH NEAL: Well, we wanted to be one. It didn't work out on Saturday. It's just a tough draw. They're a very good team. They're one of those teams they can beat you. I told our guys, If you go into this game, think you're going to walk through the first‑round game, you're wrong. You have to go out and play, play our level, keep improving.
That's one thing that's been unique about our team, I think we are improving every game. I think we still have a lot of room to keep improving.
They got it pretty crystal clear about the game and how I thought what was going to happen, how good Fresno State was and they could beat us.
Q. Deshawn Delaney very aggressive tonight. How nice is that when he's able to attack the basket, give you that extra boost?
COACH NEAL: Well, it's good. I just wish he would have stayed out of foul trouble. He didn't get any fouls in the second half, but he was terrific.
One thing that's good for us when we play a four‑guard lineup, I can put him in iso's, put him in lanes where he can drive it. It's not really fair to him right now because we've got those two big guys in there. It takes away from his slashing and getting to the basket. He's had to sacrifice. He's done everything we've asked him to do.
I thought he was terrific tonight. He had two big rebounds in the second half. He went to the basket strong. He's playing with a little bit more confidence.
I'm a big fan. I mean, I'm a big fan of all our guys. He played pretty well tonight.
Q. Monday you used the term about the fans, a Red Army coming in.
COACH NEAL: I got to quit using all those military terms, I'm going to get in trouble (laughter).
Q. But the fans tonight?
COACH NEAL: A hell of a home game. I've never seen it. I was talking to the guys, and they were laughing at me. I was talking to Lamont because he's never been involved in it. He's been at the PAC‑12 when he was at Arizona State and Washington. I told him last night, You've never seen anything like it. Once the people start coming into the hotel, doing that.
But I said, I played at Duke. I've been in the NCAA tournament. I played in a sixth, seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals at the Garden. But I've never seen a college fan base do the things that our fan base does.
It's amazing. I mean, I don't know how to describe it. When we leave the hotel, it's full from the elevator all the way to the front door. I don't know how many fans were there, but it had to be about 8,000 a night. It's going to keep growing because they're going to keep coming.
That's the amazing thing about our place. You got to be able to handle the good and the bad. When you have fans like we do, it means a lot. It means a lot to our state, to our university. The biggest thing is it's our program. It shows what our program's about.
I talk about them, but I don't know if there's anybody that travels like our fans do. Face it, Vegas is Vegas. Everybody likes to go to Vegas. It's a win‑win for them.
It's a great feeling when you walk out there and you see all that.
Q. To get 29 minutes out of Cullen in his first tournament action, how big is that going forward?
COACH NEAL: I just wanted to get him in there. I got him in about 14‑minute mark in the first half. I think we're going to have to have good bench play. I thought Cleveland played well. I thought old Botch came in and did some things. I thought Cullen did a good job. That's the best I've seen him play besides maybe Utah State and Marquette when he was starting.
But he's had a terrific year. He's done a lot of good things. He's learning to play at that level. I thought he played excellent defense tonight. He made some things happen for us to get us going. Made two steals in a row, real aggressive. I was happy for him.
But I think our team has a lot of confidence in our bench. Kendall said it. He likes where our team is and our vibe. They've got a great vibe going. I just try to stay out of the way and let them play. I think we got really good chemistry, got a really good team that cares, cares about one another.
Q. Your thoughts on hearing the thoughts from Coach Terry?
COACH NEAL: We just have to do a better job handling it like we did last year. I'm going to be real honest 'cause I get in trouble for being real honest. If you look at the last 20 years of our program, Danny's team wasn't going to make the tournament as an at‑large, they had to win the tournament in Denver. Our program that we've been here for seven years, we're the only program in the last 20 years ‑‑ there are teams that have chances at‑large. That's what I'm most proud of with our guys.
You can go back 20 years of our program, 15 years of our program, I mean, if you get a shot at an at‑large... We're not in yet, hope we win, get an at‑large. We just want another chance. It's nice to hear those things but our guys have to stay grounded because I think it affected them last year. I really do. It was new for them. They weren't used to it. Well, we're used to it now.
It's my job to get them ready. Like I said, we just want another chance.
Q. One more game left to play. Quick thoughts on Boise State or Nevada.
COACH NEAL: I think they're both really good teams. Nevada with Deonte Burton is really, really good. High‑level player, good success in this conference. Really like watching him play.
Cole Huff, good pick and pop deal for them. Got to keep West off the boards.
They give you some problems. Evans is playing at a high level. Much improved player.
Then with Boise, we lost up there by a possession. You got to give them credit. I think they're playing a lot better. Elorriaga is back, who gives us some matchup nightmares. We have to guard the line a lot better with them. You got to keep Marks out of the paint and can't let Watkins hurt you on the offensive glass.
It will be interesting to see what happens but our guys will be ready.
Q. With five teams going to the tournament from the conference last year, that won't be the case this year, do you feel like this year's conference is as strong as last year's?
COACH NEAL: I think we got caught. I've said it. I think we got caught in the situation where our team's matured late. Boise by far had the most returning players back. They had all five starters back and two guys off their bench. They had eight guys back from their team. They had four starters. There's some other teams that had guys coming back.
I just think our team meshed later, we matured later than the teams last year where we got pretty good out‑of‑conference wins that propelled our team to have a high RPI. They didn't talk about our Cincinnati win. That's a pretty good win, but nobody talked about it in December. Nobody talked about it then. Now it became a pretty good win.
I just didn't think we had a lot of out‑of‑conference wins from a top to bottom that we had last year. But I think our team's got better this year, later in the year, especially when conference play started.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, coach.
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