By Mike Mulcahy
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the first game of his head coaching career in The Pit, Craig Neal was nervous.
But considering his team, he had nothing to worry about.
New Mexico ran away from Eastern New Mexico University in Neal’s first game as the UNM head coach, besting the Greyhounds 87-68 Saturday night in The Pit in front of an announced crowd of 14,153 fans.
“It was really good for our guys to get on the floor,” Neal said. “I think we all were anxious — not only me as a coach, but I thought our players were a little anxious. I thought they did a good job.”
The Lobos received double-digit points from five players, including a game-high 17 from Alex Kirk, and capitalized on the Greyhounds’ foul problems en route to winning their 19th straight fall exhibition game.
With a new coach and a bevy of new faces, New Mexico played its entire roster versus ENMU.
“It was the first time in 6 years that we played 14 players,” Neal said. “It might be the first time we had 14 players. I thought everyone played hard.”
New Mexico was paced by a balanced scoring attack, as 12 of the 14 Lobos scored. Behind Kirk’s 17 points, Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow both chipped in 14, while Cleveland Thomas and Cullen Neal, the coach’s son, added 10 points apiece.
And while the Lobos were able to produce 75 possessions and 87 points, the early-season nerves showed up in the first half. UNM gave up 10 turnovers in the opening frame.
“I think everybody is excited and anxious,” Neal said. “I mean when you have three passes that go to in the first row to the guy eating his popcorn, that’s a little bit of excitement.”
That mix of excitement and anxiety extended to the players, as they had to contend with multiple new lineups in their first game action in nearly eight months with its full roster.
“I think we just had those first game jitters,” Hugh Greenwood said. “I think no matter what, you’re going to have those pre-game jitters. Guys aren’t going to be on the same page.”
Nonetheless, New Mexico was able to control the game, going 25-of-53 from the floor (47.2 percent) and 6-of-19 from beyond the three-point line (31.6 percent).
The Lobos also used their considerable size advantage to wallop Eastern New Mexico on the boards, out-rebounding the Greyhounds 52-to-26. Kirk hauled in 16 boards to go with his 17 points, while Greenwood (5 rebounds), Obij Aget (5) and Cullen Neal (6) each nabbed five or more boards.
New Mexico also outscored ENMU in the paint, with 32 points to Eastern’s 20.
“It was good to finally get out there and just be in the atmosphere and be with your teammates,” Kirk said. “We learned a lot about ourselves tonight. There was definitely a ton of improvement.”
UNM’s edge in size also helped create mismatch problems for ENMU. Combined with New Mexico’s faster style of play and a new NCAA officiating guidelines,the Greyhounds committed 31 personal fouls, which the Lobos were able to parlay into 31 points at the foul line.
Kyle Lantz and Rodney Blackmon led ENMU in scoring, as both tallied 16 points. Devone Davis (11 points) and Rafael Love (10) also scored in double-digits for the Greyhounds, who were held to 36.5 percent shooting from the floor (23-of-63) and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc (10-of-28).
It took over three and half minutes to open scoring the first half, with Eastern New Mexico striking first on a three-point shot by Santa Fe product Jordan Romero.
But the Lobos responded, scoring the next seven points — and 12 of the next 17 — to take a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
UNM pushed their lead to 13 points after a Hugh Greenwood triple with a little over six minutes remaining, and weathered a five-point run by ENMU to go into the half up 41-32.
New Mexico shot 45.8 percent from the floor in the opening frame, including an 81.3 percent clip from the charity stripe. Eastern New Mexico was able to use the Lobos’ 10 first-half miscues to keep the game from getting out of hand before intermission.
The Greyhounds came out quickly in the second half, however, using a 8-2 run to close the close the gap to five points at 45-40.
New Mexico answered with a 13-5 run of their own, converting seven free throws to push the lead to 56-43. The Lobos would not lead by fewer than 10 point the rest of the way, opening up a 19-point lead in the last four minutes of the game.
“I just wanted the guys to play and get some good experience,” Neal said. “It was a good night for me.”
And with a good night under his belt, the nerves might not be as big the next time.
New Mexico returns to action Wednesday night at 7 p.m. MT to take on Jamestown in its second of two fall exhibition games.