There was running.
There was rust.
There were nerves.
And after an 87-68 exhibition win over Eastern New Mexico on Saturday night in the Pit, there were a ton of smiles for the No. 23 University of New Mexico Lobos.
“It was just really good for our guys to get on the floor,” first-year head coach Craig Neal said. “I think we all were anxious — not only me as a coach but our players were a little anxious. I thought they did a very nice job. We can’t give up 68 points, though.”
Those 68 points surrendered to the Division II Greyhounds had plenty to do with a game effort from the undersized team from Portales, but probably just as much to do with the Lobos trotting out 14 players in the game, including seven who did not see action in a regular-season game a season ago.
Fortunately for the Lobos, it wasn’t all about new faces. The team’s four returning starters — Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood — each churned out solid stat lines, none better than the 17 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots from Kirk.
“I’ve always said all along I think he’s the best center in the country,” Neal said.
Kirk, the 7-footer who was guarded by 6-foot-6 or 6-7 players much of the night, said playing against anybody that wasn’t a teammate was welcome after a month of going against teammates in practice.
“You get tired of banging into Cam. You get tired of banging into Big O,” Kirk said, referring to teammates Bairstow and 7-1 freshman Obij Aget. “To finally get out there and just be in the atmosphere with the crowd … it’s just really good.”
UNM jumped out to a 41-32 lead at the half, but the Greyhounds never went away with 16 points apiece from Rodney Blackmon and Manzano High School graduate Kyle Lantz.
While the Lobos didn’t run many set offensive plays or show much of the new defensive schemes they’ve been practicing so as not to tip off regular-season opponents, Neal, the offensive guru for the past six seasons as Steve Alford’s associate head coach, was happy to point to one stat in particular that shows this Lobos team will indeed play a much faster tempo.
“I will say this, we had 75 possessions,” Neal said. “I don’t think we’ve had that in a while.”
In the end, the Lobos size advantage was simply too much. UNM outrebounded ENMU 52-26 and blocked eight shots.
Besides Kirk, four other Lobos scored in double figures — Williams and Bairstow with 14 each and Cullen Neal and Pancake Thomas with 10 apiece. Greenwood had three points, seven assists, five rebounds and no turnovers.
Neal, seeing his first college action since he was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix on the team’s exhibition tour of Australia in August, added six assists, six rebounds and four turnovers off the bench.
UNM had 10 first-half turnovers and 14 in the game.
“I think everybody is excited and anxious,” Neal said. “I mean when you have three passes go in the first row to the guy holding his popcorn, that’s a little bit of excitement.”
Craig Neal admitted he was nervous before the game and sent a text message prior to walking down the Pit ramp for the first time to thank Alford.
“I was nervous and the guys knew I was nervous,” Neal said. “I wasn’t nervous in the sense that I didn’t think I was ready to do the job, I was nervous in the sense that it was here. For a guy like me whose waited 15, 16 years to get the first chance (as a head coach), that’s why I was a little nervous.”
GOOD TURNOUT: The announced attendance of 14,153 on Saturday night was the most since 2002 for an exhibition game.