New Mexico Lobos -- At Reese’s Mountain West Tournament
Las Vegas, Nevada – Thomas & Mack Center
Thursday: New Mexico 93, Fresno State 77; San Diego State 73, Utah State 39; UNLV 71, Wyoming 67; Boise State 75, Nevada 62.
Friday: 9:30 p.m. (MT) -- New Mexico vs. Boise State; 7 p.m. (MT) – San Diego State vs. UNLV
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
A statement game was tossed out Thursday in the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center by the two teams that made statements throughout the season.
The No. 2 seed New Mexico Lobos charged into the Reese’s Mountain West Tournament semifinals with a 93-77 win over Fresno State and San Diego State, the MW champion, simply mauled Utah State 73-39.
The Lobos advance to play Boise State which beat Nevada 75-62. The Broncos are one of three teams to beat UNM in the regular season with their 71-70 win in Boise. The Aztecs try to knock off the home team, UNLV, a 71-67 winner over Wyoming.
The Thomas & Mack definitely will be rocking on Friday as the Rebels should draw a good crowd for their upset bid against the Aztecs and Pit West (The Mack) already was rocking Thursday night as Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk both scored 21 points to pace the quarterfinal win.
“Our two big guys are hard to guard, hard to play,” said Lobo Coach Craig Neal. “We made a concerted effort to go inside tonight.
“I really didn’t do anything different. I usually don’t wave a magic wand. We were fortunate that Cam and Alex had good nights. We can play a lot of different ways. We really didn’t change much. We just put them in different spots and ran the plays we have.”
The Bulldogs’ strategy wasn’t a bad one either: drive to the rim, finish or get fouled, kick out for the trey. The ‘Dogs got their free throws going 19-of-28, but they bombed on their bombs hitting 8-of-27 with several falling in late.
“They have a lot of weapons,” said Neal. “We are playing at a good level. We have to tweak some things on defense, but it’s a big deal to win our first tournament game. They (Fresno) have talent and they don’t stop.
“I told our guys if they go into this game and think they are going to walk through the first round that they are wrong.”
The Lobos got to the line, too, but they also got the ball inside to Bairstow and Kirk. The Twin Towers combined for 42 points and combined for 16 boards and four blocked shots. The Lobos were at the free-throw line often and they were hot going 31-of-38.
“Those two guys are very good. They played great and we knew they would,” said Bulldog Alex Davis on UNM’s Twin Towers
The Lobos’ Kendall Williams had an excellent all-around game with 17 points, six rebounds and nine assists. UNM shot a sizzling 56.9 percent from the floor with 42 points coming in the paint.
“We played one of the better teams in the country today,” said Fresno State Coach Rodney Terry. “They are a hard team to beat. I think they have all the ingredients to be a Sweet 16-type team.
“Against a team like this, you have to make shots and we didn’t do that. You have to do something to neutralize that two-headed monster they have. They (New Mexico) played to their strengths and they played well. I’ll say this, New Mexico’s defense has really, really improved.”
Bairstow finished with a double-double adding 10 boards. Kirk had six boards and Hugh Greenwood had eight rebounds. Cullen Neal had seven points and four assists and Greenwood added three assists.
The Lobos ran to a 14-point halftime lead and the Bulldogs managed to slice UNM’s 14-point halftime lead by only one (55-42) going into the first media break of the second half at 15:35. Bairstow had gone to the bench at the 16:20 mark with three fouls.
UNM used a 6-0 run to go from 55-45 to 61-45. Fresno cut it to 63-51 at the 12:40 mark and 65-53 at the 11:28 media break. So far, the Bulldogs were playing UNM even on the scoreboard, but not cutting much into the Lobos’ lead.
Bairstow came back in at the break and quickly scored underneath: 68-54. UNM’s lead was back to 14 points. UNM went up 73-54 (19) with 8:16 to play on a single Bairstow free throw. The Bulldogs definitely needed to make a run while trying to slow down the Lobos inside. A Kirk layup made it 77-61 sliding toward the six-minute mark.
If there was a sealer on this win, it probably came at 4:20 when Cleveland Thomas drove, scored and added a free throw for an 82-65 cushion. UNM coasted in for its semifinal berth.
"We aren’t going to settle for a good win tonight," said Williams. "We want to win this championship and then go from there."
The win pushed UNM to 25-6 on the season. Fresno State ends its season at 17-16.
The Thomas & Mack was a sea of Lobo red on Thursday and Coach Neal said that fan support did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
“It was a hell of a home game,” said Neal. “I’ve never seen a college fan base do the things that our fan base does. It’s amazing. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s going to keep growing because they are going to keep coming. It just shows what our program is all about.”
First Half: New Mexico 49, Fresno State 35
The Bulldogs probably went into the half discussing what to do about New Mexico’s attack fueled by Bairstow’s and Kirk’s size inside. New Mexico probably was talking about avoiding the ref’s whistles which sounded out two fouls each for Bairstow, Kirk, Delaney and Aget.
“That’s a hard two-headed monster in there,” Fresno Coach Rodney Terry told CBS Sports.
“We just have to stay out of foul trouble,” said Coach Neal.
Those eight fouls were on inside players for an obvious reason. The Bulldogs often attacked looking to finish at the rim or kick out for treys. The long shots didn’t fall for Fresno in the first 20 minutes as they went 2-of-10 which helped the Bulldogs fall into a 14-point, first-half hole. Cezar Guerrero went 0-of-5 from trey range.
The Lobos’ lead was finalized in the final 7.2 seconds when Williams raced the court and kicked out to Cleveland Thomas in the right corner. He nailed it and UNM had its 49-35 lead.
The Lobos got 23 points from their Twin Towers with Bairstow scoring 12 and Kirk 11. They combined for nine boards and UNM won that battle 20-to-15. UNM shot 53.6 percent from the field with only two Lobos – Williams (2-7) and Neal (1-3 – shooting under 50 percent. Thomas, Greenwood, Aget and Delaney combined to go 4-of-5 from the floor.
The Lobos controlled the first half mostly behind their inside muscle and threatened several times to drift into double-digit leads before finally doing it at the 3:43 mark.
The Bulldogs didn’t have too many answers on defense, but attacked well enough to slip into a 34-28 hole. UNM’s Williams was intentionally fouled on a break created by a Neal steal. Williams made the two free throws to finally push UNM up by 10: 38-28 with 3:43 to go. UNM got the ball and Bairstow tossed in a short spin move: to make it 40-28. UNM went up 42-28 on Greenwood free throws.
The Lobos guarded that 14-point lead into the 49-35 first-half score.