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It may be the sloppiest 6-0 start a team could have.
But for all the troubles the New Mexico Lobos need to address in this basketball season, they’re still finding ways to win.
They did so again Sunday night in a sloppy 69-54 victory over Portland that should have the program knocking on the door of a Top 25 ranking when the polls come out today.
“Obviously it wasn’t pretty because when you don’t make shots, things don’t get very pretty,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “I probably jinxed the team because one of the things I told them in the locker room beforehand was … guys, you’re going to have nights where you don’t make things. That happens throughout the season. But what’s got to happen is your defense.”
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Lobos didn’t hit many shots – 19-of-57 overall (33.3 percent) and 2-of-19 from 3-point range (10.5 percent) – but their defense showed up.
Portland (2-3) turned the ball over 16 times, hit just 32.1 percent of its shots and was only 1-of-10 from 3-point range.
Jamal Fenton, who started in place of disciplined Kendall Williams, hit the game’s first 3-pointer with 1:14 left in the first half, putting UNM up 30-25. At the half, the two teams were a combined 1-for-20 from beyond the arc (Portland 0-for-8, UNM 1-for-12).
In UNM’s first five games, opponents hit a combined 27-of-62 (43.5 percent) from the 3-point line in the first halves of games. Defending the perimeter was a point of emphasis Sunday.
Alford said the improvement started with getting back on defense and not allowing the Pilots to kick out for open shots at the 3-point line in transition.
“I thought our half-court defense was really good tonight,” Alford said. “I thought we took a lot of things away. We made it hard on them. Our 3-point defense – they get one 3 on the night.”
The Pilots previous worse 3-point performance was 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) against Montana State.
After a 30-27 lead at halftime, UNM scored the first 10 points of the second half to lead 40-27 and never had less than a double-digit lead in the final 20 minutes.
A Williams’ jumper with 13:26 left gave the Lobos their largest lead of the game at 52-33.
But it wasn’t Williams or fellow junior Tony Snell who led the charge for the Lobos. UNM got a second career double-double from 7-foot center Alex Kirk, who threw down three dunks in the game and had game highs in points (14) and rebounds (11). He also blocked a shot and consistently altered shots in the paint.
“I’m playing hard,” Kirk said. “I’m getting better each game. Everybody keeps telling me I just have to keep getting better. The big key right now has been just rebounding.”
Between Kirk and 6-9 forward Cameron Bairstow, the Lobos are getting plenty of production from the post. The two combined for 23 points, 22 rebounds, three blocked shots and were 11-of-14 from the free-throw line.
UNM was 29-of-38 from the free-throw line and has now hit 82 more free throws (143-61) than its opponents this season.
The Lobos host Mercer (3-3) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Pit.
DISCIPLINE: Williams, the Lobos leading scorer, and Demetrius Walker, who scored a career-high 19 points in Friday’s win over Idaho, both showed up late to a team meeting over the weekend and were benched to start Sunday’s game.
Williams first checked in at the 12:28 mark of the first half and Walker at the 8:32 mark. Without the Lobos’ usual first-half rotation, they were noticeably out of sync.
RECRUIT: Phoenix Westwind Prep junior forward Zylan Cheatham, along with teammate Tate de Laveaga and two of their coaches, attended Sunday’s game in the Pit, making an unofficial recruiting visit to UNM. Both players are juniors and will be a part of the 2014 recruiting class.
The 6-foot-8 Cheatham, who has been offered scholarships from 10 of 12 schools in the Pac-12, as well as Gonzaga and several others, flashed a big smile during a first half timeout with the UNM student section began chanting “We want Z! We want Z!”
Prior to the game, Cheatham told the Journal he was impressed with UNM’s facilities and is very impressed with the Lobos’ coaching staff.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal