ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It won’t count toward his official coaching record, but Craig Neal on Tuesday opened up the “Noodles” era at the University of New Mexico with a victory.
In the first of a three-game exhibition tour for the Lobos in Australia, UNM rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to beat the Sydney Kings 87-85 in Sydney in a game that began at 3 a.m. MT on Tuesday.
“I just told our guys we’re going to come over here and have fun,” Neal said in a postgame interview streamed live on the internet courtesy of the Kings. “… It’s good for me because it’s the first time I’ve got to coach them. It’s a good feeling.”
His postgame cheer was anxiety only moments prior.
After erasing a 48-40 halftime deficit by outscoring the Kings 30-22 in the third quarter, and working in plenty of new zone and full-court pressure defense, the Lobos took an 85-81 lead with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the game on a pair of Kendall Williams free throws.
Sydney tied the game 85-85 on a pair of Tom Garlepp free throws with under a minute to go.
With 23.7 seconds remaining, UNM center Alex Kirk hit the second of two free throws for an 86-85 lead. Hugh Greenwood, one of two Australians starters for the Lobos along with Cameron Bairstow, stole a pass and also hit the second of two free throws for an 87-85 lead with 3 seconds remaining giving the Kings one last possession. Kendall Williams put an end to that with another steal to seal the victory, giving UNM 10 steals in the game.
UNM was 19-of-33 (57.6 percent) from the free throw line (they attempted only four in the first half) and it was that coupled with his team’s defense in the opening 20 minutes that had Neal concerned after the game. Neal noted of the 48 first half points allowed, “We just haven’t done that in our previous years.”
Williams led the Lobos with 24 points on 6-of-13 shooting (3-of-9 from 3-point range) and added six assists and five rebounds. Bairstow, playing in front of his home country after a summer of impressive play for the Australian Boomers national squad, had 22 points and six rebounds, including 14 points in the 10-minute third quarter. Alex Kirk scored 19 points and blocked two shots for the Lobos while Greenwood had 13 points, four steals, four rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.
Sophomore Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas started for the Lobos in the spot vacated by recent NBA draft pick Tony Snell and scored two points in 24 minutes. The other four Lobos are returning starters.
Junior college transfer Arthur Edwards had the most minutes off the bench for UNM with 16.
For Sydney, guard James Harvey led the way with 27 points, including four 3-pointers, and seven rebounds. Center A.J. Ogilvy had 22 points and seven rebounds.
Sydney hosts Butler later this week while the Lobos will travel to play the SEABLE All-Stars in Melbourne on Thursday and the Queensland All-Stars in Brisbane on Sunday.