On his 23rd birthday, playing in front of his parents — Ian and Penny from Brisbane, Australia — in person for the first time in his four-year University of New Mexico career, Cameron Bairstow had one of the best games of his life.
Behind Bairstow’s inspired effort of 24 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, not to mention the best team defense UNM has played this season, the Lobos beat visiting Cincinnati 63-54 on Saturday afternoon in front of 15,411 fans in the Pit, the first sell out in the Craig Neal coaching era.
“The guy is one of the best power forwards in the country at his position,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “… He’s the real deal.”
UNM improves to 7-1 and will wait a week before playing No. 6 Kansas in Kansas City on Dec. 14. Cincinnati falls to 7-1, losing an undefeated record for the second December in a row to the Lobos, who knocked off the then-12-0, No. 8 Bearcats in Cincinnati on Dec. 27, 2012.
Amid a physical Bearcats defense, Bairstow filled the stat sheet in 37 minutes of court time with two blocks, two steals and three assists. He also drew six fouls (he was 10-of-11 at the free-throw line). Then, before changing out of his jersey or talking with reporters, he chalked up his hands and hit the weight room.
“Not a surprise,” Cronin said. “Kids like him. There’s a reason. There’s a reason he is who he is. The guy’s got ‘worker’ written all over him. He doesn’t need it tattooed on his forehead for you to know.”
As for playing in front of his family on his birthday, Bairstow was grateful.
“It was a pretty cool opportunity for them to come over and finally see me play live,” he said. “They’ve watched a lot of games online, but it really doesn’t compare to when you get in the atmosphere of the Pit, especially for a game like this.”
Bairstow and frontcourt running mate Alex Kirk, UNM’s 7-foot junior center, set the tone for the Lobos early. The two had 14 of UNM’s first 17 points and a Bairstow 3-point play with 10:19 remaining in the first half put the Lobos up 17-8.
The lead extended to 27-12 on two Bairstow free throws with 3:06 remaining in the first half.
Cincinnati shot just 26.7 percent (8-of-30) in the first half, and leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 19.7 points per game prior to Saturday, was held to two points on 1-of-9 shooting. UNM’s Kendall Wlliams served as the primary defender.
Neal credited associate head coach Lamont Smith for scheming against Kilpatrick on ball screens.
“They got down in the North Carolina State game, that was their tough game this year, and that’s all they went to was ball screens,” Neal said. “So we were prepared for it. We’ve been practicing on it.”
But Kilpatrick scored nine of Cincinnati’s first 13 out of the intermission. Cincinnati used a 21-8 scoring run, that began late in the first half, to pull within 35-33 with 15:01 remaining.
That was when Bairstow and Kirk (15 points, six rebounds) took over again, scoring the next six points for a 41-33 lead. When Cincinnati drew within 49-44 with under seven minutes to go, the Aussie took over again.
In a span from 6:33 to 4:43, Bairstow drew three Bearcats fouls, went 5-of-6 at the free-throw line and hit a layup to put the game away at 56-44.
UNM held Cincinnati to 18-of-61 (29.5 percent) shooting. Kilpatrick had 19 points, but needed 18 shots to get there (he was 5-of-18 shooting and 1-of-7 from 3-point range).
“I thought that was what we’ve been working for, defensively … up to now,” Neal said. “We’ve been working on some different things and trying to use our personnel. I think that’s the way we can guard.”
Cronin didn’t disagree that the Lobos succeeded in taking his team out of its offensive game.
“It’s a modern miracle we only got beat by nine points as bad as we were on offense,” he said. “A modern miracle.”
Williams had 10 points and four assists and joined Bairstow and Kirk as the only Lobos to score in double figures. Besides Kilpatrick, the Bearcats got 11 points from Troy Caupain and 10 from Justin Jackson, who added six rebounds and three blocked shots.