ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Coming out of Texas, after a highly decorated high school career, Phillip McDonald was supposed to be the next Charles “Spider” Smith. He hasn’t been.
Truth is, he’s never had to be that in Steve Alford’s system and probably never will. That’s asking a lot, anyway, since Smith, a Lobo from 1993-97, remains the program’s all-time leading scorer.
Still, it’s reasonable to have expected more from McDonald, a junior, than he has delivered so far.
But Tuesday, in the New Mexico Lobos’ 69-57 first-round NIT victory over UTEP at the Pit, McDonald did what Smith used to do and what a shooting guard does: make shots when made shots are really needed.
McDonald’s modest statistical line — 12 points, one rebound, two assists, three turnovers — belies the impact he had on Tuesday’s game.
With 14:32 left in the second half, UNM appeared in control; a Drew Gordon dunk provided a 45-36 lead, and the NIT Pit crowd of 9,626 was in fine voice. But as young teams will do — and this is certainly a young team without Gary — the Lobos faltered. Missing their next seven shots, they went almost six minutes without a point.
New Mexico’s rushed, outside-the-offense 3-point attempts let the Miners back in. And when UTEP’s Randy Culpepper converted a bad Chad Adams inbounds pass into a fast-break layup, the Lobos led by only 45-41 with 9:46 left.
Alford called a timeout and replaced Adams with McDonald, who’d sat out the previous six minutes after picking up his third foul.
Faster than you can say “four-star recruit out of Cypress, Texas,” McDonald took over.
Coming off a screen, assisted by Kendall Williams, McDonald hit a 3-pointer to make the score 48-41.
Not quite perfect, even in this decisive stretch, he killed the Lobos’ next possession by committing an offensive foul. But three seconds after the eight-minute media timeout, he again came off a screen, took a pass from Williams and buried a 3.
The Miners answered with a Culpepper layup, but McDonald — this time getting an inside-out pass from Gordon — hit yet another 3. The Lobos led by 11 and never were seriously threatened thereafter.
McDonald scored only one more point, a free throw with 1:08 left and the game secured. But his job was done.
“We’re a lot better when (McDonald is) making shots, that’s for sure,” Alford said afterward. “He’s our scoring guard.”
It’s been a trying season for McDonald. His principal role is to hit outside shots, yet his 3-point percentage entering the game (31.1) — was well below the team’s average (34.7). The same is true of his overall field-goal percentage of 40.7, compared with the team average of 46.1.
Mostly forgotten, though not by Alford, is the injury to McDonald’s right, shooting elbow suffered in an exhibition Nov. 6.
The injury, Alford said, still bothers his shooting guard.
“He didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half (1-for-5); he bumped his elbow again,” Alford said. “He’s had a really difficult injury all year, because he’s had that shooting elbow.
“We haven’t said anything about it, but it’s flared up about every seven to 10 days. … But he just keeps playing. The one thing Phillip is, is tough. I thought he really showed some toughness tonight.”
Going forward, whether in the short term against Alabama in the NIT or next season, the Gary-less Lobos will need all the toughness they can find.
They’ll need shooting, too, the clutch and timely kind.
Tuesday, that’s what McDonald gave them.
McDonald doesn’t need to be Charles Smith; in Alford’s system, no one player gets as many shots as Spider did. He just needs to be P-Mac, the guy who comes off screens and hits big shots.