When Kendall Williams, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, hit a jumper 16 seconds into Saturday night’s regular season opener for the No. 23 New Mexico Lobos, he didn’t just score the first points of the season.
He opened the flood gates on a frantic first half of run-and-gun basketball that hasn’t been seen in the Pit for years, ushering in the Craig Neal coaching era with a dominating 88-52 win over Alabama A&M in the regular season opener for both teams.
“Yeah, I was nervous again,” Neal said after the win, the first in his head coaching career. “This one counted. But really proud of our guys. That’s the way I envision our guys playing.”
The vision, as Neal has said since he took over the program in April, was one of a high-tempo offense that includes his team running up the court and, ideally, getting a shot up, draw a foul driving to the basket or a get one of the team’s two big men a touch in the post near the rim within the first 10-15 seconds of each possession.
The Lobos scored the game’s first 10 points, pleasing the 14,445 in attendance. UNM led 21-3 with 14:08 in the first half before the visiting Bulldogs ever caught their breath.
While running their way to a 45-26 first half lead, the Lobos had 36 possessions in the first 20 minutes, averaged 15 seconds per possession and scored 1.25 points per possession. While Neal acknowledged he took the foot off the pedal in the second half so as not to run up the score, the Lobos still ended the game with 67 possessions, scoring 1.31 points per possession.
UNM in 2012-13 averaging 63.2 possessions per game and the national average was 65.9 per game. Michigan led the nation in points per possession last season at 1.20.
All said, this was a fast start for the Neal era.
“I think we could have made it a little faster,” Neal said.
For Cameron Bairstow, one of two Lobo big men to have a big season debut, the pace was all about the defense setting up that fast pace offense.
“Once we we’re able to play good defense,” Bairstow said, “it really sets up the transition game for us.”
Bairstow scored a game- and career-high 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. 7-foot center Alex Kirk added 16 points and 12 rebounds. Both post players had two blocks apiece and the Lobos finished with eight in the game.
UNM’s defense held the Bulldogs to 28.8 percent shooting. Alabama A&M was led in scoring by 17 points from guard Jeremy Crutcher.
UNM, meanwhile, had four players score in double figures as Williams (17) and Cullen Neal (10) joined Bairstow and Kirk. All 14 players on the UNM roster played in the game.
GAME BALL: Before Craig Neal spoke to the media after Saturday’s win, Athletic Director Paul Krebs presented him with a game ball with the inscription: “1st Career Victory. 88-52. November 9, 2013. Head Coach Craig Neal.”
BANYARD: There was no grudge held by Neal on Saturday night with sophomore forward Nick Banyard, who in Wednesday’s exhibition game got on his coach’s bad side for not responding well to his coach after a turnover, leading to his being benched the rest of that game.
Saturday, Craig Neal said he there was no hesitation in playing Banyard.
The 6-8 power forward played 11 minutes, scored four points (both second half alley-oop dunks from freshman guard Cullen Neal) and grabbed three rebounds.
JERSEY SALES: The special camouflage jerseys the Lobos wore Saturday night were auctioned off to fans during the game and brought in a “preliminary” figure of $5,770, according to one UNM official. Half will donated to the Wounded Warriors Project and the other half to the UNM Veterans Resource Center.
SEASON TICKETS: UNM has sold 11,609 season tickets this season, up from last year’s 11,053.