New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – In The Pit
Tuesday: New Mexico 67, Utah State 58
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
It surely didn’t fall into that “Pit Game” category. But it probably was a Pit win.
Craig Neal’s Lobos didn’t come out against Utah State with the same intensity that they showed in their 14-point win over San Diego State on Saturday, but The Pit was determined not to allow any Mountain West slippage.
Freshman Cullen Neal must have felt the same way.
The Lobo freshman came off the bench to hit two big second-half treys and his emotional play -- and his bombs – were exactly what The Pit needed to provide a charge of energy that was absorbed by the Lobos, especially on the defensive end. UNM rallied from eight down to win 67-58.
“Tonight was the best I think I’ve seen Cullen Neal play,” said Alex Kirk. “The kid can shoot the (heck) out of the ball, but he also made the right plays tonight. For a freshman, that was outstanding. That was definitely his best game as a Lobo, to me.”
Said Coach Neal of his son, Cullen: “I know how to push his buttons and I know how good he can be. He gave us a spark we needed. He lifted our team tonight. I think all of us were in a little lull. Our fans came to life. Our team came to life. It was the type of game you need to win to be champions.”
It wasn’t exactly a game you expected the Lobos were going to lose, but you could feel the impatience of The Pit as it was waiting for the Lobos to make a run. They made it near the halfway mark of the second half with Utah State sitting on an eight-point (47-39) lead. The Aggies were shooting 53.3 percent at that point in the half.
Things needed to change. They did. A Cullen Neal-trey started a 23-to-5 run that made the UNM win look easier on the scoreboard than it was on the court.
“I was just trying to make an open shot,” said Neal of his 3-pointer coming off a designed play. “I was wide open and thankfully I hit it. I think we got energized. It’s always good when the crowd is going.”
The Lobos got 12 points from Neal off the bench with 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk had solid double-doubles. Bairstow had 14 points and 11 boards and Kirk had 13 points and 12 boards. Kirk added five assists and four blocked shots.
“I thought Cam and Alex were terrific," said Coach Neal.
Kendall Williams had 10 points and two assists and Hugh Greenwood finished with nine points – all on pivotal 3-pointers. Utah State got 19 points from Preston Medlin.
UNM won the board battle by 16 – 46-to-30. Utah State had only seven turnovers and shot 37.9 percent for the game. They were shooting 53.3 percent when they were up 47-39, but cooled to 36.4 percent for the half once UNM revved up its defensive intensity.
“That was a grind,” said Neal. ““I think the key to our game was our defense in the second half. We just got off to a slow, slow start offensively. I’m just really glad we won."
Second Half: New Mexico 41, Utah State 31
Utah State held a 27-26 halftime lead and stretched it to 36-32 going into the first media break of the second half at 15:52. A 41-34 Utah State lead convinced Coach Neal to call time at the 14:29 mark. It was the Aggies’ biggest lead of the game up to that point.
The Pit was doing its thing to get the Lobos back into it. A Wiliams’ layup in transition made it 41-39 and the crowd was loud and rowdy. It helped a little, for a while, but the Aggies stayed hot. At the 11:27 stop, the Aggies were back up 46-39 and coming out of the break shooting a free throw. They made it: 47-39, up eight. Utah State was shooting 53.3 percent from the field in the half at that stop. UNM was shooting 37.5 percent.
A Cullen Neal trey out of offense and a Hugh Greenwood trey out of transition pulled UNM to 47-all. The Pit went wild. Utah State went into a huddle. The Aggies need to quiet The Pit crowd which was igniting a Lobo rally. A Neal head fake put the Lobo rookie at the line for two free shots. He converted one: 48-47. The Aggies went up 50-48 and 52-50 before another Neal trey pushed UNM into a 53-52 lead with 6:11 to play. UNM's intensity on defense had dropped Utah State’s shooting to 43.5 percent for the half.
UNM slowly pulled into a 57-52 lead with 4:45 to play. The Aggies’ upset bid continued to unravel. Kirk scored inside off a Neal feed: 60-52. UNM got a stop and Williams was fouled on a drive throwing up an impossible shot – that fell: 62-52. UNM was on a 23-to-5 run. Williams missed the extra shot, but Utah State was in a hole.
Coach Neal said the energized rally in the final ten minutes came from his Lobos “having a sense of urgency” and a “fear of losing.” “They don’t like to lose,” said Neal. “They dug pretty deep tonight.”
Said Kirk: “There wasn’t much fear. We’ve been in that spot before. We were a little lackadaisical. We were waiting to make our run. They are a talented team and we just kept battling and battling until we were able to get on our run.”
First Half: Utah State 27, New Mexico 26
The Aggies played well. The Lobos – not so much, which meant there was plenty of stuff for Coach Craig Neal to talk abo'" said Neal.
Utah State shot 40 percent from the floor and had only four turnovers to make up for a 21-13 UNM pounding on the boards. UNM shot 39.3 percent from the field and both teams went 3-of-8 from 3-point range. The Aggies’ edge came at the line: 4-of-6 to 1-of-2 for UNM.
Preston Medlin led all scorers with 10 points and Kirk had seven for the Lobos. UNM had seven turnovers with four off Utah State steals.
The Lobos seemed to control most of the activity in the first six minutes, but the Aggies went into the first media break at 14:04 with an 8-7 edge in production. The tables quickly turned toward the Lobos and a Kirk jump hook pushed UNM into a 19-12 lead. Utah State’s Stew Morrill called for time at the 8:53 mark.
At the 7:59 media break, Utah State had scratched to 19-15 and eventually an 11-0 run made it 23-19 in the Aggies’ favor. A Bairstow dunk in transition after Utah State blew a layup finally snapped that run: 23-21. Utah State went up 25-21 and 27-24 before the Aggies ran up the mile-high ramp with a slim 27-26 lead.