FRESNO, Calif. — Kendall Williams looks back at No. 19 New Mexico’s Jan. 12 blowout win over Fresno State as a turning point.
Williams, the Lobos leading scorer, had nothing to do with that 72-45 win. Instead, he was benched for showing up late for a third time this season to a team function.
“You always need some wake-up calls, and it was definitely one of them,” said Williams, grinning as he realized the wordplay of his statement. “I don’t know if you want to take that literally or not, but definitely a life change more than anything. I’ve gotten a lot closer with my teammates.”
Williams sat back and watched his teammates not only play without him, but flourish with the largest margin of victory of the season.
It was a realization that while UNM may be a better team with him, it could still play without him.
“We as a team had one of our best team efforts,” Williams said. “Obviously you notice that from the bench. It was tough for me to watch the team.”
In the seven games since, UNM has gone 5-2, with the losses at two of the toughest home courts to win on west of the Mississippi.
Williams’ scoring numbers have gone down since that benching — 14.6 points per game prior down to 10.1. But he’s averaging 4.9 assists per game since and has played a vital, although largely overlooked, role in creating opportunities for recent big games from fellow guards Hugh Greenwood and Tony Snell, and Lobo big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
That frontcourt duo will be the focal point for Fresno State (8-14, 2-7 Mountain West Conference). Kirk and Bairstow combined for 35 points, 19 rebounds and four blocked shots, while shooting 58.3 percent from the floor in the Jan. 12 win over the Bulldogs.
“They’re really good, two physical post guys,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said this week. “I think not only did they attack us, they’ve attacked the whole league. They’re really tough together.”
They have started together the past four games and have averaged 24.5 points and 14.0 rebounds, including 30 points and 22 boards in Saturday’s 64-55 loss to UNLV. Kirk and Bairstow played 31 and 28 minutes, respectively.
“I don’t know if we want them playing any more than that,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “I think they can. They’re in great shape. … But we need production from Chad (Adams) and Nick (Banyard) to get Alex and Cam more rest.”
UNM isn’t expecting tonight’s game to match what happened Jan. 12.
The Bulldogs are a very different team from one month ago. That was evident last week when they beat UNLV, three days before the Rebels knocked off the Lobos.
FSU leading scorer Tyler Johnson, a guard, was injured and did not play at UNM on Jan. 12. Leading rebounder Kevin Foster missed the game due to a death in his family.
Both are expected to play tonight, as is Braeden Anderson, a 6-9 forward playing his third game of the season since being declared eligible by the NCAA.
Robert Upshaw, FSU’s 7-foot freshman center who scored nine points and blocked three shots in the Pit, won’t play as he serves the final game of a three-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules.
“They’re a different team this time,” Bairstow said. “They’re playing a lot smaller with their five-man (Foster) back. It’s a different look for them. They stretch the floor a lot better, so it will be a completely different game.”
BIG WEEK: If the Lobos (7-2 MWC) can beat last-place Fresno tonight and defend home court in the Pit on Saturday against sixth-place Boise State, they will see separation from at least some of the four teams behind them in the standings — Colorado State (6-2), San Diego State (6-3), UNLV (5-4) and Air Force (5-4).
Those four teams play each other this week: Today, SDSU plays at CSU and UNLV plays at Air Force. On Saturday, SDSU plays at UNLV and CSU plays at Air Force.
Alford stresses his team better take care of itself first.
“When you’re in a league like this, you have to play good basketball,” Alford said. “We’ve got to go play good basketball at Fresno.”
OFFICIAL VISITOR: Class of 2014 Aurora, Colo., Regis Jesuit point guard Josh Perkins, ranked by Scout.com as a four-star recruit and the No. 8 point guard in the country, will make an official recruiting visit to the Pit on Saturday for UNM’s game vs. Boise State.
The 6-foot-3 Perkins already has scholarship offers from Arizona, Colorado, Gonzaga, Kansas, Minnesota and UNM.