Coming into the game against the nationally-ranked New Mexico Lobos Tuesday night, Bob Hoffman, head coach of the Mercer Bears, told an Albuquerque media member that he thought his team could make some inroads against UNM’s bigs – Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
By the time Hoffman left The Pit Tuesday night he had certainly changed his mind as Kirk and Bairstow combined to score 32 points and pull in 18 rebounds as New Mexico defeated the Bears 76-58 before 13,561 to remain undefeated on the season. The Lobos, ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and 25th in the Associated Press poll, move to 7-0. Mercer fell to 3-4 on the season.
Kirk registered his second double-double in a row, scoring 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. Bairstow came off the bench to score 16 points and pulled down five rebounds. Tony Snell added 13 points, five rebounds and five assists.
"They just continue to get better," said head coach Steve Alford of Kirk and Bairstow. "They tried going at us early and I thought the guys did a tremendous job – both Alex and Cam managed to stay out of foul trouble.
"We’re just getting great production from our two bigs, especially in the beginning when they were going at us inside and they not only managed to hold their own but they were performing pretty well themselves," concluded Alford.
Travis Smith paced Mercer with 15 points and six rebounds and Jakob Gollon added 10 points and six rebounds as the Bears finished with a 22 of 59 shooting performance (37.9%) and hit 7 of 21 (33.3%) on three pointers.
New Mexico opened the game with a 19-5 run keyed largely by baskets by Bairstow and a Snell three-pointer. But Mercer managed to chip away at the lead by gumming up the UNM offense and turning the game into a grinding affair. The Bear cut the UNM lead to 24-16. New Mexico looked to extend the lead going into the halftime, going on a 7-2 run, but the Bears scored four points in the final 51 seconds and the Lobos halftime lead was cut to 31-22.
The two teams traded baskets for the first nine minutes of the second half as the game again devolved into a grind it out style affair. But New Mexico engineered a 29-5 run over the next 10 minutes of the game by turning up the defense and consistently getting the ball inside. By the time the run ended with a dunk by Bairstow, the score was 73-43 in favor of the Lobos. Mercer made the score respectable closing with a 15-3 run against UNM’s third stringers.
"I think defensively we've seen a lot of progress," said Alford. "We're not fouling and we're making things really difficult on opponents. We're taking away what they want to do. I think the guys are just doing a lot of good things. We've got some tough travel ahead of us so I hope the players are able to get some good rest because I'm from Indiana and that's not an easy trip to make."
The Lobos travel to play the Indiana St. Sycamores Saturday at 12:05 pm MT as part of the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge.
Starting guard Kendall Williams scored just two points for the game but added six assists with just two turnovers. Sophomore guard Hugh Greenwood also contributed with seven points and eight rebounds and junior guard Demetrius Walker came off the bench to score eight points. New Mexico shot 16 of 31 (51.6%) in the second half and 45% (27-60 for the game. The Lobos were a bit lackluster from the free throw line, however hitting 17 of 26 (65.4%) from the charity stripe – a season low – after drawing 25 fouls and committing only 16 fouls for the game.
Alford addressed the criticism of consistency from his guards that have risen from fans and media alike.
"You guys think of consistency differently than I do and I keep getting a lot of Tony Snell questions," said Alford. "In this home-stand he has 16 assists and 3 turnovers and that's pretty good, I'll take that. But whether Tony takes 4 shots or 13 that stuff varies game to game, Kendall didn't take a field goal tonight so I'm not going to go home and wonder `what's wrong with Kendall Williams?' That's our team; we've got a deep team that you're not going to have all six playing at a high level offensively every night.
"I just thought we did a really good job defensively and in the second half it got out offense going," said Alford. "I'm pleased with the effort these guys gave tonight."