Party's over. The Lobos lost their first game of the season to the UMass Minutemen in the second round of the Charleston Classic Tournament (81-65). The Minutemen improved to 5-0 and advance to play in the championship game against either Clemson or Davidson.
UMass' Chaz Williams and company plain outplayed, outshot, and out rebounded the weary Lobos. Williams had 19 points, five boards and five dimes. Raphiael Putney had 18 and Cady Lalanne had 16 points and 14 boards. The Minutemen shot 41.2 percent (7-of-17) from beyond the arc and 43.2 percent overall. They also finished with 18 offensive rebounds.
The Lobos box score might as well read, "Alex Kirk." Kirk had a remarkable game, recording 32 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks. "Alex played one of the best games I've ever seen him play," said Lobo coach Craig Neal. "He went into beast mode and they couldn't stop him."
But it wasn't enough. The only other player in double figures was Kendall Williams who finished with 13 points and five assists. Cameron Bairstow, who was averaging 23 points this season, was held to eight points on just eight shots (foul trouble limited him to 24 minutes).
Offensive woes aside, the Lobos looked a bit worn and distracted from last night's double overtime game. They committed an atrocious 18 turnovers (seven from Williams and six from Cullen Neal). This is not to take away from UMass, who came in with an effective game plan and executed. "Their stamina was a little bit better than I anticipated or expected," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. "Both teams played really hard. But once that run came, we were going to take advantage of it."
Coach Neal took most of the blame: "I thought we were prepared for the press, that's on me." Still, New Mexico's defense didn't help either. The Lobos built up a 27-22 lead in the first half to only let it evaporate with a 14-0 run by the Minutemen.
The Lobos were down 38-33 at half before clawing their way back into a 61-61 tie around the 8:00 mark. Lobo points became a premium from that point forward as the scoreboard read 61-77 at the 1:35 mark. The Lobos just didn't have the energy or the accuracy to withstand this second run: UNM scored only four more points to close out the game.
This was a tough loss for the Lobos and just might be enough to knock them out of the national rankings, especially considering the heroics it took to defeat UAB (not to mention FSU's assured ascendancy). But hey, it could be worse. At least the Lobos aren't playing in the loser's bracket.
What's worse though is the overall message this sends to fans and critics. I mentioned several days ago that Neal would like to show supporters that his Lobos are a new breed. A breed that doesn't falter under expectations. This loss doesn't help.
But let's pump the brakes. It's still early and the Lobos have talent and chemistry (did you see the players hugging and chest-bumping in the UAB win?). Maybe a few wrinkles just need to be ironed out. Neal is the right man for the job and he should be able to motivate his team and keep perspective.
"I'm not making an excuse for our guys," said Neal of the possibility his Lobos were a little leg weary." "We could never get into the secondary part of our offense," said Coach Neal. "We'd stay on one side and take the first shot that was open. I want to see how our guys bounce back." And see we shall. The Lobos play for third place against the loser of the Clemson/Davidson game on Sunday November 24 at 12:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. MT). That should be ample time for the Lobo squad to convalesce and coalesce.