The New Mexico Lobos (13-4) earned a confidence-building win on the road against Fresno State (8-11), 89-78. The Bulldogs fought hard, but the Lobos showed some closing grit, something that coach Neal and fans had been questioning.
This was a game that the Lobos had to win as they lost to a talented, although inexperienced, UNLV team at home Wednesday night. That loss also gave San Diego State sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference. And for a team that was pegged to win the conference, UNM had a lot on the line tonight. The Lobos bounced back in a major way by beating a feisty Fresno team by double digits. New Mexico looked poised and coach Craig Neal looked relaxed (sporting a nice plaid sports coat sans tie).
Go to scorer, Cameron Bairstow, led the Lobos with 22 points and eight rebounds, going 14-19 from the charity stripe. Freshman Cullen Neal had an impressive first half, scoring 17 points overall, including two three pointers. Kendall Williams had a well-rounded night with 13 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Alex Kirk finished the night with 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Cleveland Thomas had some big shots on his way to score 10 points, including two three-pointers and 4-5 five free throws.
Fresno put forth a well-rounded effort with four players scoring in double digits. Cezar Guerrero and Marvelle Harris both had 15 points and three assists. Tyler Johnson had 16 and Paul Watson added 12 points. Watson also pulled down eight boards.
The Bulldogs appeared to be in the midst of a hot-shooting night, hitting five three pointers in the first half. But Fresno only made three in the second half, the first one not coming until around the 7:00 mark. The Bulldogs led by four points with under four minutes to play in the first half, but Bairstow and Neal scored nine unanswered points to give the Lobos a 32-27 lead at the break.
Cullen was fearless and deadly early on, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the first half. And thank goodness. The Lobos were struggling to put points on the board in the beginning. Speaking of significant role players, Obij Aget did an excellent job filling in for Kirk and Cameron. Aget only scored two points, but he had three rebounds in limited playing time and played great defense. He even had a steal and a precision pass to Bairstow that led to a basket.
The second half was all Lobos. Around the 11:00 mark New Mexico built a 15 point lead. The Bulldogs got back within nine points with 8:30 to go, but Hugh Greenwood sunk two back-to-back three pointers from the same spot to give the Lobos a 67-49 lead. From there it was basically a free throw battle. Fresno outshot New Mexico from the charity stripe, 78.8 percent to 70.7 percent.
This game was refreshing and encouraging for a couple of reasons. The Lobo's tenacity was questioned after a dispiriting loss to UNLV. Tonight's win showed that they can stay strong down the stretch. It also demonstrated, not for the first time, that New Mexico has scoring threats beyond the big three. Greenwood, Thomas, and especially Neal had big games. These guys, along with Deshawn Delaney (who only had three tonight but scored double digits the last to games), are going to need to do this more often to stay in the MWC race, especially against seemingly impervious SDSU.
New Mexico's next game is at home against the high scoring Boise State Broncos (12-5). Hopefully this game strengthened cohesion and determination.