USA TODAY Sports
Two shorthanded teams met at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. for their second conference games of the season. The Lobos' (No. 25 AP) defense is stifling as it holds the Fresno St. Bulldogs to just 33% shooting.
It might have been easy to overlook the Fresno State Bulldogs (6-9, 0-2 MWC)—unless you've been paying attention. After all, these same Bulldogs had just driven San Diego St. (No. 16 AP) to the brink two days before as they were narrowly edged 65-62 in the final minutes. Couple that with a UNM Lobos squad (15-2, 2-0 MWC) that was without two of their top scorers, and you had the ingredients for an upset at The Pit in Albuquerque.
"I knew a little bit more about the adversity we were hitting today than the rest of the group in here," UNM head coach Steve Alford said when asked why he had donned his trademark red blazer for a second consecutive conference game. "I thought we needed as much help as possible, and that red blazer's pretty good."
It would need more than a wardrobe change for the Bulldogs to have any consistent success scoring against the Lobos as they were held to just 33% shooting on the afternoon. They also attempted a game-high 20 three-point shots, making just five.
The Lobos found themselves surprisingly thin at tip-off with a benched Kendall Williams—disciplined for being late for a team meeting—and a sick Demetrius Walker unable to suit up. Facing a tough Fresno St. defense that had allowed UCLA as the only team to score more than 70 points on them on the season, the Lobos would need some larger-than-normal contributions from their starters.
"Tremendous win. Couldn't be more pleased," said Steve Alford. "They had some guys out, we had some guys out, so we knew it was going to be a slugfest and a grind."
After back-and-forth opening minutes, the Lobos pulled away with a scorching 16-2 run to finish the first half. Jamal Fenton contributed two impressive assists to Tony Snell and Alex Kirk for easy layups in the last two minutes, but the story of the first half was Cameron Bairstow who found the basket early and often—scoring 15 points in the first half on flawless 6-6 shooting. Bairstow finished the game with 16 points—tying his career high—after encountering some foul trouble in the second half.
"The gameplan was to get down low inside early," Bairstow said. "Alex [Kirk] was supposed to have a 6'8" guy on him but they started [Robert] Upshaw so they had a 6'7" guy on me and I was able to take advantage of it."
An authoritative dunk following an offensive rebound by Alex Kirk put the Lobos up by 20 at the 15-minute mark of the second half as the 7'0" big man began a run of his own. Kirk racked up 9 rebounds in the second half (finishing with 14) as the Bulldogs were clearly overmatched on the glass given the fouls of 6'10" Tanner Giddings and 7'0" Robert Upshaw. Both Fresno St. big men ended up fouling out.
"It was Cam in the first half and pretty much Alex in the second half, so it's a pretty good 1-2 punch we have going on inside right now," Alford said.
With the win, New Mexico improves to 2-0 in conference play—only the second time in school history that has happened. 2002 was the only other season to see such an unblemished mark out of the Mountain West gate.
"We've normally been slow starters in this league race, so it's nice to wake up Monday morning and know we're on top of the league and the series has been reduced by two games," Alford said. "So we're excited about that."
Marvelle Harris led Fresno State with 11 points, the only Bulldog to reach double figures. Robert Upshaw added 9 more on 4-7 shooting, while Jerry Brown led the team in rebounds with 9.
Tony Snell recorded 16 points of his own for the Lobos—his most since a 27-point effort against George Mason during the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. Jamal Fenton added 9 points and 6 rebounds including one of only two total three-pointers made for the Lobos all game.