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On paper, it was a demotion.
On the court, it was a breakthrough.
New Mexico Lobos head coach Steve Alford decided before Friday’s game against visiting Idaho to take struggling Demetrius Walker out of the starting lineup for the first time this season.
The junior guard responded by tying a career-high with 19 points and hitting all five 3-pointers he attempted leading the Lobos to a 73-58 win over Idaho in front of 14,741 fans in the Pit.
“It actually felt more relaxing,” Walker said of the move back to the bench, and back to his more natural position of a wing player. “It’s something that I’m really comfortable with. I spent all last season coming off the bench, so it was a role that I got used to.”
He certainly looked comfortable Friday, draining three first half 3-pointers and hitting all five of his attempts from beyond the arc in the game, helping UNM improve to a perfect 5-0 on the season.
Walker’s return to the bench to start the game seems to be an indication that the Lobos’ experiment with a four-guard rotation will take a back seat. The 6-2 Walker had 11 turnovers and just one assist through his first four games playing the four position in the lineup for the first time in his career.
He admitted Friday night that his body felt good after the game, not having to bang with the opposing team’s power forwards who usually stand about 6-7 or 6-8.
“We’re just too small,” Alford said of the four-guard lineup. “We tried that and I don’t think we were getting the most out of Demetrius. You can see that tonight. We put him back in the guard spot and he gets 19 points. … We were asking him to do things he’s never been taught to do.”
In Walker’s place, 6-6 senior Chad Adams made his second career start and played his best game of the season, finishing with nine points and five rebounds.
But Friday’s game wasn’t without a challenge from the Vandals (1-3). Idaho got a game-high 20 points from guard Connor Hill, who hit six 3-pointers. His trey with 15:29 left in the second half put Idaho up 47-41 and capped a 19-5 run for the Vandals spanning the last 1:33 of the first half and first 4:31 of the second.
But then the Lobos defense clamped down, mixing in some zone defense with Alford’s trademark man-to-man scheme.
Portland at UNM, 6 p.m.
TV: My 50 TV, Root Radio: 770 AM
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UNM held the Vandals without a field goal for nearly the next 10 minutes until Stephen Madison hit a basket with 5:35 left in the game to cut the Lobos lead to 65-51, ending a 24-2 scoring run by UNM.
“We had a couple of really good runs and we’ve got to be able to do that, especially at home,” Alford said. “I thought our defense improved in the second half. We did a much better job at that end.”
Sophomore Alex Kirk had another big night with 11 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in 28 minutes. Junior Kendall Williams was the third Lobo player in double figures, scoring 10 points, while swingman Tony Snell tied a career high with seven assists.
The first half was all about the two teams trying to match scoring run for scoring run. After UNM used a 13-2 run midway through the half to open up a 26-19 lead, Idaho responded with a 9-0 scoring run to take the lead back, 28-26 with 5:01 left in the half.
The Lobos then scored 10 straight, capped by a Walker four-point play to give UNM what looked to be a comfortable 36-28 lead with 2:42 left in the half. But the Vandals answered again, scoring the final eight points of the first half, including a Hill 3-pointer with three seconds left to tie the game 36-36 at the break.
UNM’s bench outscored Idaho’s bench 18-0 in the first half and 34-7 for the game.
QUICK TURNAROUND: The men’s game started a little more than one hour after the UNM women’s team concluded their game against North Texas in the Pit. Arena officials made a quick turnaround of the 6,318 fans in attendance for the women’s game, emptying out the arena between games before letting fans for the men’s game enter, or in some cases re-enter the arena.
Fans for the women’s game were not required to repark for the men’s game regardless of their parking pass.