UNM's Cullen Neal came out hot to start this game, scoring 11 of the Lobos first 14 points. During that time he went 3/3 from long distance, one of which was a deep three that he banked in on a "heat check." Though Auburn hung with New Mexico out the gate, seeing the Lobos looking so sharp from beyond the arc game hope to Lobo nation. They jumped out to a six point lead in the first six minutes.
Then something happened around midway through the first half: Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl had the Tigers ramp up their defense. Under the smothering defense, the Lobos' offense withered like a desert rose in winter's first frost. New Mexico went into a huge shooting slump and finished the first half 9/30 from the field and trailing 41-36.
A couple notes of interest: only two players made a field goal for New Mexico in the first half: Eljiah Brown and Cullen Neal. What's more, only one other player scored at all: Obij Aget hit two free throws (and finished the game with 7 points). The Tigers had a much more balanced approach with four guys finishing the half between six and nine points.
It became clear that Auburn's defense strategy was to let Brown and Neal get theirs while containing everyone else. Power forward Tim Williams, who entered the game averaging 17 ppg, was held to 0/4 shooting in the first half. He ultimately finished with 10 points for the game, but struggled to find a rhythm. Part of that struggle might be attributed to a hard spill that he took in the first half.
Williams was fouled on a dunk and his hands slipped off of the rim before he had his feet under him. He tumbled hard to the floor, landing directly on his tailbone. Williams did return to the game and aside from a deep bruise tomorrow, he should hopefully be fine.
Brown and Neal finished the game with 33 and 21 points, respectively. However, both struggled to involve their teammates in the offense. To be fair to them, you could equally argue that their teammates gave them little offensive support: only four other Lobos (including Williams) scored. Thus far this season it has been a truism that New Mexico needs Brown, Neal, and Williams to all have really good games for them to win against decent to good competition.
For them to be a true threat this year in the Mountain West, someone else must step up as a threat to score the ball. I'm not implying that they need another 15 ppg scorer, but someone that can keep defenses honest with a consistent three point shot or slash to the bucket would really open up the offense.
This is true for most basketball games, but this one was a game of runs. A 17-6 run and nine straight makes to open the second half gave UNM a 53-47 advantage. The Tigers would eventually tie it up and the Lobos would go into another offensive slump. With 5:48 left in the game, Auburn went on a 6-0 run to go up 74-71. The two teams would trade the lead over the remainder of the half until about a minute left.
With New Mexico trailing 75-76, Auburn's Kareem Canty (27 points) was Mr. Big Shot in this game and hit a step-back three pointer with 26 seconds left to put the Tigers up for good. A costly turnover by Neal on the next possession put the nail in the coffin. The Robin to Canty's Batman was T.J. Dunans, who poured in 20 points of his own. Auburn knocked down their free throws to win 83-78.
The University of New Mexico finds themselves in a bit of a slump after dropping back-to-back games against Rice and Auburn. Can they right the ship in paradise on Wednesday against BYU?