Stevens: Lobos Roll UTEP 69-57 & Move On To Play Alabama
March 15, 2011
Lobo Men's Basketball - National Invitation Tournament
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writter/GoLobos.com
You have to give the National Invitation Tournament some credit for the Lobos' 69-57 first-round win over the UTEP Miners.
Sure, thank the NIT for throwing this postseason shindig in the Lobos' digs. The Pit rocks a different way for NIT games probably because the crowd base gets an injection of new and younger blood.
But thank the NIT for reaching down I-25 a couple of hundred miles and bringing an old friend -- but mostly old foe -- up to battle.
It wasn't merely an NIT game that got the Pit rocking Tuesday night to a roar that seemed to come from more voices than the 9,626 in attendance.
This NIT thing also was Lobos vs. Miners. This was geography and tradition going back to bad times provided by Tim Hardaway, Don Haskins and even to paper cups flying from the UNM crowd.
"This is one helluva place," said UTEP coach Tim Floyd. "This place has the best home court that I've seen. The crowd was fantastic."
The Pit was into it and so were the Lobos as they scratched out of a 21-20 first-half deficit and never again looked back, leading by as many as 13 in the second half.
"We played a team that starts five seniors," said Lobo coach Steve Alford. "We dominated the glass, which we thought we could. We had two or three freshmen out there at the same time and to do that and win without Dairese speaks volumes for this team."
The Lobos took to the NIT/Pit floor Tuesday without senior Dairese Gary, who is lost for the postseason due to a knee injury. The Lobos gave that spot to sophomore Jamal Fenton, who didn't finish inside like Gary, but did dish out six assists.
One of Fenton's best assists was a behind-the-back flip to Drew Gordon. Fenton said he was happy that pass was completed because if not, "I was coming out."
Gordon had another monster game inside for UNM with 18 points and nine boards. Kendall Williams also scored 18 points and had four assists. Phillip McDonald had 12 points and hit three huge second-half treys when UTEP was trying to put together a run.
"We're a lot better when Phillip is making shots, that's for sure," said Alford. "He made huge shots when they cut it to four."
UTEP sliced a 43-33 UNM lead into 45-41 with 9:47 to play. The Miners were playing well on offense at that point, but didn't have the same focus on the defensive end.
McDonald banged in back-to-back-to-back treys to push UNM back up 54-43. The Miners never got closer than seven points the rest of the way in.
UTEP 23 points from Randy Culpepper on 8-of-19 shooting, but were hurt by their 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) effort from behind the line. "I thought we got a little shot-happy with the lead," said UTEP's Floyd.
A huge stat for UNM's win came off the boards where the Lobos enjoyed a 41-26 edge - 12 to four on the offensive glass. "We have to be one of the poorest offensive rebounding teams in the country," said Floyd.
Said Alford: "We thought we could beat them inside."
Junior A.J. Hardeman had eight rebounds for UNM. Williams had five and Alex Kirk had five boards in only nine minutes on the court. UTEP got 10 boards from Gabriel McCulley and seven from Jeremy Williams.
The Lobos' trip to Alabama will be a test. The Crimson Tide is a No. 1 seed in the NIT and UNM is a No. 4. Alabama pounded Coastal Carolina 68-44 Tuesday in a romp that raised `Bama's record to 22-11. The Tide finished 12-4 in the tough SEC.
"They are very athletic. They like to full-court press," said Alford of Alabama. "The press we'll see at Alabama is a little more intensified. They won their side of the SEC and we have to play in their building and that's never easy."
The Miners and Coach Floyd can relate to that. UTEP, which lost an NCAA bid by a couple of seconds and a missed jumper, got off to a good start in The Pit, but faded when UNM didn't fade.
The Pit win gave Alford a good look at his Lobo team at home playing a good team, minus Gary, UNM's only senior. The trip to Tuscaloosa will give Alford a look at his Lobo pups on the road playing a better team -- without Gary.
"It's a bright look," Alford said of The Pit win. "I thought we really guarded. (UTEP) had a pretty good start and our guys didn't get rattled. Our offense was really good.
"We got great shots and we had good balance inside/out. We had several guys step up and perform well."
The Lobos said they were motivated to get the win for Gary, who cheered his teammates from the bench and encouraged them in every huddle.
"I just wanted to win for Dairese," said Fenton.
Said Gordon: "Dairese motivates us to win whether he's on the floor or not."
Lobos vs. UTEP -- NIT Game Notes: