A lot has been made this season of The University of New Mexico’s dynamic duo in the low post.
On Sunday afternoon in the Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nev., it was the Lobos’ backcourt players who came up big when it mattered most.
Freshman Cullen Neal hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 7 minutes, 55-seconds left to pave the way for UNM’s 72-58 victory over Nevada in Mountain West Conference play. Ranked No. 25 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, New Mexico (23-5, 14-2) kept pace with No. 13 San Diego State (25-3, 14-2) in a two-team sprint to the finish atop the MWC standings.
Just two games remain in the regular season; the Lobos are at home against Air Force on Wednesday, then travel to San Diego State in the epic finale on Saturday. The Aztecs visit UNLV this week before hosting UNM in a game that will determine the regular season championship and the top seed in the MWC tournament next week.
On Sunday, New Mexico appeared to be rolling over a little early. The Wolf Pack raced to an early lead and opened a 14-point margin, 31-17, late in the first half.
The Lobos’ guards were tentative, passing up open shots and making uncharacteristic turnovers. The miscues were correctable, said Lobos head coach Craig Neal.
So, too, were the guards being too passive.
“I got confidence in my guys,” Neal said. “It would be different if I was telling them not to shoot, but I’m not. I’m not that kind of guy.”
And shoot, the guards did.
The Lobos closed the first half on a 10-0 run. It was all part of a larger 32-13 run between the two halves that turned the game completely around.
After missing each of his first five attempts — all from 3-point range — junior point guard Hugh Greenwood hit his last two. And both were big.
The first capped an 8-0 run sparked by Cullen Neal’s aforementioned trey. Neal hit his bomb from the top of the key to snap a 49-all tie, then added a pair of free throws on UNM’s next possession to open a five-point lead.
“Cullen has the dramatic to make big shots,” Craig Neal said. “I mean, he wants to shoot it.”
Greenwood’s first 3-pointer put UNM up 57-49 with 6:47 to play. The Wolf Pack (13-16, 8-8) never drew closer than five points the rest of the way.
The true daggers came in the final 3 minutes when Greenwood took a feed from guard Cleveland Thomas and hit another 3-pointer to open an 11-point lead with 2:36 left. Less than a minute later, Thomas buried a 3-ball from the corner on a cross-court pass from Kendall Williams to make it 70-56.
“They showed a lot of attention to our big men,” Williams said. “I just took advantage of that.”
Williams finished with 10 assists and 11 points. He also became the MWC’s all-time assists leader early in the game when he passed UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield for the career lead. Williams now has 591 assists, placing him all alone in first for both conference games and career contests.
On Sunday, he and Greenwood combined for 15 assists and zero turnovers.
“I always brag about my bigs because everybody wants to talk about my bigs,” Craig Neal said. “But I’ll take my guards against anybody.”
Thomas had seven points off the bench while Cullen Neal had eight.
Then, over course, came the contribution of the big men. Power forward Cameron Bairstow was brilliant once again, scoring a game-high 22 points to go with four rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. Center Alex Kirk had 10 points, nine rebounds four blocks.
“Cam was a monster late in the game,” coach Neal said. “Alex was unbelievable defensively. He just changes so man shots. He takes up so much space. It’s hard to drive inside when he’s there.”
Baistow now has 327 points in 16 conference games, ranking that total as the third-most in the history of the MWC. His current scoring average of 20.4 ranks fifth all-time in the league.
He said after the game that as well as the Lobos are playing, they’re still not peaking. UNM has won 16 of its last 18 games and had 11 straight games in which it has held its opponent under its scoring average. Nevada came in with a 72.8 clip — making its 58 points the fourth straight time an opponent has been held at least a dozen points below its average.
“We’ve still got a ways to go, I mean — we’re getting there defensively,” Bairstow said. “It’s going to continue to be a work in progress, but you see guys improving on certain things.”
Nevada’s loss drops the Wolf Pack into a tie for fifth place in the MWC standings. UNLV sits alone in third and Boise State is by itself in fourth, followed by Wyoming and Nevada.
UNM’s next game will be its only look in the regular season against Air Force. The Falcons (11-16, 5-11) are mired in 10th place.
Craig Neal said Wednesday night promises to be an emotional contest since UNM will say goodbye to seniors Williams, Bairstow and walk-on Chris Perez. After that, it’s onto San Diego for the most anticipated game of the conference season.
“I haven’t talked about that game,” Neal said. “I’ve talked about it being one step in a journey to win a championship.”