The New Mexico St. Aggies split the Rio Grande Rivalry by overwhelming the Lobos in front of a sold-out Pit crowd Tuesday night, 67-61
The Aggies set the tone of this game from the beginning, bounding out of the gate to a 23-5 lead over the stunned Lobos. NMSU led 39-26 at the half thanks in large part to seven three pointers, three from Kevin Aronis.
The Lobos showed signs of resilience in the first half by clawing their way back within seven points off of a Bairstow layup, resulting in a 24-17 score around the 9:00 mark. But the Lobos went cold, allowing that lead to deteriorate by the end of the half. I should say that every Lobo besides Bairstow went cold. Following a Kirk layup at 7:35 (making the score 29-19), no other Lobo scored besides Biarstow who scored the next seven points.
The second half began very much the same. NMSU pushed its lead to 49-34, but the Lobos cut that to 49-38 at a NMSU timeout at 12:39. The Lobos started to clamp down on defense, often-times resulting in the Aggies working the shot clock down to the wire.
On the other end, the Lobo big men capitalized on NMSU foul trouble and Williams began attacking the rim with abandon. From 14:09 to 6:40 Williams scored nine points, Kirk two, and Bairstow seven. Within that same period, only one Aggie scored, Mullings, and he did so with such impeccable precision and seemingly engineered timing to deflate the Lobos' momentum. Every time the Lobos appeared poised to finally make a meaningful run, Mullings struck back with an impossibly difficult shot.
The Lobos had their window though. At 6:40, Williams knocked in four free throws to make the game 56-52. The Pit crowd began to swell. 7-5 Bhullar quieted the crowd with a heavy-handed dunk and then a free throw to put NMSU up by seven with 3:30 to go.
UNM managed to force a turnover and immediately called a timeout at 1:14. Then Williams did something very uncharacteristic and unfortunate: he double-dribbled. UNM was forced to foul Mullings, who hit both free throws to go up 61-54. Williams hit three free throws after Mullings fouled him on a hurried three point shot.
The Lobos stole the ball on an in-bound play to find Bairstow for a 12-foot jumper to make it a 2-point game, 61-59. Remarkably, the Lobos stole the ball on another inbound play (à la last season's game against George Mason).
Arthur Edwards raced down the floor with Cullen Neal at his left side. At the last minute Edwards dished the ball to Neal who went up for a layup. But somehow, Aggie Renaldo Dixon came from behind to deflect Neal's layup off the edge of the backboard. Ross-Miller finished the game with six clutch free throws to win the game.
"We got off to a really bad start," said Lobo Coach Craig Neal. "We just couldn't get it going early. My hats off to them. They played terrific. It was one of those games we didn't play well and didn't finish."
It's worth noting that the Lobos played with out their starting point guard and excellent defender, Hugh Greenwood, who is convalescing from a wrist injury (try a copper bracelet inlaid with turquoise). Williams was delegated to the ball handling role, which doesn't always suit his skill set. He was only credited with a single shot in the first half.
Greenwood is essential for the Lobos. Bairstow acknowledged as much after the game. "People don't realize how important Hugh is to our entire structure to be able to slow everything down, set everything up, keep everyone composed, bring everyone together in the huddles," Bairstow said. "He's really a good on-court leader. That's his biggest attribute to this team. We really did miss that today."
I know it's early and I hate to say it, but the Lobos better do some soul searching going forward. This isn't the worst loss, but it isn't the best either. Losses to #22 UMass (undefeated) and #18 Kansas are forgivable. But for a team ranked in the preseason, a loss at home to NMSU is unacceptable. This could turn into a "they are who we thought they were" moment if the Lobos don't turn it around.
I keep saying it-everybody keeps staying it-Bairstow, Kirk, and Williams need more help putting points on the board. The rest of the team has scored less than 12 points (against UMass) in each of their three losses; they scored a mere 8 last night. If the Lobos can't rely on their bench, it's going to be a long and frustrating season.
"I think today was a good wake-up call," Bairstow said. "I think we can be a very good basketball team. I think today showed our inexperience with how we opened the game and how we finished the game. ... It's going to be a process for the young guys."
Let's hope the Lobos answer the wake-up call. They will get their chance this weekend as they face Marquette (also ranked in the preseason) in Las Vegas.