New Mexico started slow but finished strong to down Nevada, 72-58. With this win the Lobos improve to 23-5 overall and 14-2 in the MWC. The Wolf Pack drop to 13-16 and 8-8.
Cameron Bairstow led the charge for the Lobos with 22 points while going 8-10 from the free throw line. Kendall Williams went for 11 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds. Williams also became the all-time leader in assists in Mountain West history with his third assist of the game. Alex Kirk had another big double-double, scoring 10 points, pulling down 11 boards, and blocking four shots.
The Wolf Pack punched the Lobos in the nose early, gaining a 14 point lead in the first half. New Mexico was absolutely lethargic most of the first half before going on a 10-0 run to cut the lead down to 27-31. Nevada forced six turnovers and was taking the ball to the rack with impunity. It didn't help that the Lobos went 1-9 from beyond the arc; something that Nevada seemed willing to sacrifice as long as Bairstow and Kirk didn't get touches down below.
That tactic worked for a while until New Mexico finally woke up to get stops on defense and find runners in the middle for layups. The last eight points in the first half came from layups or dunks from Williams, Deshawn Delaney, Kirk, and Bairstow.
New Mexico really started to find their rhythm in the second half as they answered an AJ West dunk with a 6-0 run (four from Delaney) to tie the game at 33. From there it became a bit of a back and forth. Cleveland Thomas made a couple of athletic layups to put the Lobos up 47-44, but Jerry Evans, Jr. and Huff scored five points to tie the game at 49-49. The Lobos managed a 23-9 run to vanquish the Wolf Pack for good.
The run came in part from another clutch performance from Cullen Neal who finished with eight points. He hit a big three and followed it up with two free throws to give the Lobos a 54-49 lead. Then Hugh Greenwood hit his first three-pointer after a 0-5 drought. From there Bairstow took care of business, hitting jumper after jumper. Greenwood hit another three with 2:40 left to put the Lobos up 67-56 and Thomas followed suit the next possession to go up 70-56.
This game was very similar to the Utah State game in Albuquerque on Tuesday. New Mexico's goose looked cooked early on. There was a lot of disconnect and lack of cohesion. Thankfully the Lobos found their stride to close the gap late in the first half. Then the Lobos finally awoke in the second half as if they remembered that they were a ranked team and reigning MW champions.
I have to say that I would like to see UNM come out the aggressor in games like this, but I respect the determination and will that it takes to come back from a 14 point deficit on the road. More importantly, it keeps them in the regular season running with SDSU who handled business this week with victories over SJSU and Fresno.
New Mexico plays a struggling Air Force team at home Wednesday night, which will mark the last game in The Pit for Williams, Bairstow and Chris Perez. These guys have accomplished a lot for UNM so I expect an emotional game from them. It only seems fitting that these Lobo legends finish their tenure with a solid victory behind the cheers of thankful Lobo fans. Even more fitting, if the Lobos and the Aztecs both win Wednesday night (SDSU hosts UNLV), the regular season MW title will be determined when the Lobos visit SDSU in Viejas Arena March 8.