Cameron Bairstow added 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for Lobos. Bairstow was also 100 percent from the charity stripe, going 8 for 8. Kendall Williams, slow to start, finished with 14 points and three assists. Starting in place of injured Hugh Greenwood, Deshawn Delaney contributed an athletic 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Auspiciously absent from the scorers above is Alex Kirk, who only scored three points. But that's okay. Critics and fans alike have been yearning for a more balanced scoring attack and tonight they got it. "Your have to be five," said Neal. "Four fingers don't make a fist. We were five fingers tonight on a lot of possessions."
If Kirk was quiet offensively, he surely left an impression on the defensive end, holding 6-11 Chris Otule to two points and two rebounds. Jake Thomas hit four treys to lead the Eagles with 17 points. Jamil Wilson added 15 points and Todd Mayo had 10.
At times it was doubtful that the Lobos would pull this one off. New Mexico started hot and jumped out to an early 12-5 lead, but the Eagles came back to take a 22-20 lead with about seven minutes left in the first half. A Bairstow three-point play tied the game at 24, but the Eagles capitalized in transition to build a 37-30 lead at the half.
Juan Anderson made a layup to start the second half to put the Eagles up by nine. It was at this point that the Lobos really needed somebody to step up, and that's exactly what Cullen Neal did. He scored 11 points to help the Lobos take a 46-45 lead at the 15:00 mark. At times it was sublime and at other times it was quite frightening. Neal has sometimes played with more confidence than poise, but tonight he delivered.
The Lobos and Eagles exchanged leads up to the 5:23 mark, where the Lobos took the lead for good thanks to Bairstow's clutch free-throw shooting and Delaney's acrobatics. Delaney appeared to be connected to theater wires as he flew into the air to rebound a William's miss and just as quickly laid the ball off the glass to put the Lobos up 64-60.
Bairstow hit a jumper to go up 68-62. From here it was the foul game. Neal, Williams, Delaney and Bairstow all hit free throws to win the game 75-68 (though Williams did uncharacteristically miss two in a row).
This was big win for the Lobos. It showed their resolve and showed that they can be multidimensional. If Neal and Delaney can continue to be a steady source of scoring, the Lobos are going to present formidable match-up problems. The Lobos defense also looked improved. Marquette shot 58.3 percent in the first half, but fell to 36.4 percent in the second half as UNM upped its defensive intensity both inside the paint and on the edge.
What's more, New Mexico did it without Greenwood. As good as Neal was tonight, Greenwood is essential for the Lobos because he has better ball control and makes better decisions.
Hopefully this is a sign that the Lobos are finally starting to build chemistry. That is what's been lacking this season, especially in the losses. It takes time to feel each other out and establish roles. Better now than never though as the Lobos have only one more game before conference play. Currently, only 2 of the 11 Mountain West teams have losing records and the top five teams are a combined 41-12.
The Lobos host Grand Canyon University Monday night at 7:00 p.m. MT. Let's see if the Lobos continue to improve.