LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The New Mexico Lobos fell behind early in the rematch game against in-state rivals the New Mexico St. Aggies but rallied and finished strong to sweep the two-game portion of the Rio Grande Rivalry, winning 68-63 in the Pan American Center Wednesday night to move to remain undefeated on the year.
"I thought our guys battled again – we did what we do," said UNM head coach Steve Alford after the game. "(We) didn’t shoot the ball particularly well – that’s been the case all year long. We just battle, we guard, we compete and we make big plays. I thought we made big plays down the stretch. We’ve done that a lot this year, so that’s a good trend."
Junior Kendall Williams had a Lazarus-like performance, scoring a game-high 24 points on 7 of 12 shooting after going down just a minute and a half into the game with a badly twisted ankle.
Junior Tony Snell added 11 points and three assists while sophomore Hugh Greenwood added 10 points and six rebounds for UNM.
New Mexico St. was paced by guard Daniel Mullings, who scored a team-high 13 points and had five rebounds but shot just 4 of 11 from the field. Remi Barry and Tyrone Watson added 12 and 11 points respectively. Forward Bandja Sy scored five points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
Entering the game ranked 16th in the AP poll and 17th in the Coaches poll, New Mexico (12-0) fell behind after battling the first five minutes. With Williams still working out the kinks and the Aggies shooting lights out early on, NMSU grabbed a 25-14 lead with 8:56 left in the first half on a three-pointer by Watson – the third trey in a 12-4 run that left both the Lobos and their large contingent of fans seemingly stunned.
Two minutes later, Williams kicked his game into gear, scoring nine of the next 11 points as UNM produced an 11-0 run to tie the game 25-25 with 4:23 left in the half. The two teams traded shots until Williams drove the basket and laid the ball to give UNM a 34-32 lead with 44 seconds left in the first half – a lead they would take with them into halftime.
"Best player on the floor," said Alford of Williams. "Kendall Williams is extremely talented. He had a great game for us tonight both offensively and defensively. He was a great leader tonight and he’s playing at a very high level."
The two teams traded baskets and leads early in the second half before New Mexico managed an 8-0 run fueled by a pair of three-point plays – a trey and a lay up followed by a made free throw – to give the Lobos the lead for good at 49-41 with 12:04 left in the game.
New Mexico St. surged twice to cut the lead to two points but was unable to regain the lead as the Lobos made plays on the offensive and defensive ends at critical junctures. Leading just 56-54 with 3:41 left in the game, New Mexico engineered a 10-4 run that saw two Aggies foul out and returned the lead to eight at 66-58 with 26 seconds left in the game.
One of the keys to he game was reducing the Aggies’ shooting percentage from three point range in the second half. NMSU shot a terrific 6 of 7 (85.7%) on treys in the first half but were held to just 4 of 10 shooting in the second frame.
Alford said he and his staff didn’t really make any adjustments defensively at halftime.
"We just said 'Contest more,'" said Alford. "They (the Aggies) have not been a good three point shooting team and to their credit in the first half they made threes. The made threes all night long… we weren’t real concerned about it we just wanted to contest a little better because we felt the key was dribble drive."
NMSU finished the game shooting 21 of 55 (38.2%) compared to UNM’s 23 of 56 (41.1%) and 10 of 17 (58.8%) on triples compared to the Lobos’ 6 of 20 (30%).
Free throw shooting was again a key for UNM, with the Lobos hitting 16 of 21 (76.2%) from the charity stripe compared to a pedestrian 11 of 20 (55%) for the Aggies.
Despite the height advantage with 7 foot 2 starting center Sim Bhullar, NMSU lost the rebound battle 39 to 34 and was slightly outscored in the paint 14-12.
UNM Froward Cameron Bairstow added nine points and seven rebounds coming off the bench as starting center Alex Kirk and starting forward Chad Adams were limited by foul trouble. Kirk and Adams scored four and six points respectively, combined for six rebounds and played just 22 minutes collectively before fouling out. Freshman forward Nick Banyard added two points and three rebounds in 15 minutes of play – his most this season. However, New Mexico State’s bnch did outscore the Lobos reserves 25 to 13.
"This was obviously a big game for us," Alford summed up Wednesday night. "We’ve got 3 of our next 4 on the road I thought it was imperative we get this one on the road."