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Game plan on how to beat Lobos identified

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Lobo Alex Kirk, left, battles inside against Kansas’ Joel Embiid (21) on Saturday. Kirk got into foul trouble and never found his rhythm. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

Lobo Alex Kirk, left, battles inside against Kansas’ Joel Embiid (21) on Saturday. Kirk got into foul trouble and never found his rhythm. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

It was déjá vu all over again.

That helpless feeling the New Mexico Lobos had in the final eight minutes of Saturday night’s 80-63 loss to the No. 13 Kansas Jayhawks in Kansas City’s Sprint Center was familiar.

In many ways, the defeat played out almost identically to UNM’s Nov. 22 loss to No. 22 Massachusetts in Charleston, S.C., – a game also played outside the friendly confines of the Pit, where no boost of energy from 15,000 fans was there down the stretch to save the listless Lobos.

And in case it wasn’t already common knowledge, Saturday also solidified the blueprint for game planning against coach Craig Neal’s team, which has yet to find any consistent scoring help for the big three of Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams.

Consider the following similarities:

  • vs. UMass: Bairstow played five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, was limited to 24 minutes overall and scored eight points. He said days later he never got into rhythm in the second half due to sitting out so long early.
  • vs. Kansas: Kirk played three minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, was limited to 18 minutes overall and scored five points. He clearly never found a rhythm in the second half.

  • vs. UMass: Kirk and Williams combined for 45 points and hit 16 field goals. The rest of the Lobos’ roster scored 20 points and hit nine field goals.
  • vs. Kansas: Bairstow and Williams combined to score 48 points and hit 14 field goals. The rest of the Lobos’ roster scored 15 points and hit four field goals.

  • vs. UMass: The Big Three scored 53 points (Kirk 32, Williams 13, Bairstow 8).
  • vs. Kansas: The Big Three scored 53 points (Bairstow 24, Williams 24, Kirk 5).

  • vs. UMass: Starters Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas and Hugh Greenwood combined for two points. The bench scored eight.
  • vs. Kansas: Thomas and Greenwood combined for two points. The bench scored eight.

  • vs. UMass: UNM shot 39.1 percent.
  • vs. Kansas: UNM shot 33.3 percent.

  • vs. UMass: The game was tied 61-61 with 7:56 remaining before UMass closed on a 20-4 run.
  • vs. Kansas: KU led 63-58 with 8:01 remaining before closing on a 17-5 run.

  • vs. UMass: The Minutemen outscored UNM in the paint 18-10 in the first half and 28-16 in the second, even with Bairstow back.
  • vs. Kansas: The Jayhawks outscored UNM in the paint 16-14 in the first half and 22-10 in the second half, even with Kirk back.

You get the point. The problem the Lobos face is, so do their opponents.

It was clear Saturday that the Bill Self-coached Jayhawks realized Greenwood’s wrist injury was bad enough that he wasn’t even looking to shoot open jumpers.

And it’s also clear that if no other scoring threat emerges outside the Big Three, trapping and double- or triple-teaming Bairstow and Kirk in the post while leaving anyone but Williams open elsewhere on the court will become the norm.

“They had two players of the three that had great games,” Self said Saturday. “We tried to shrink the floor when those guys had the ball, and we actually did a decent job, but the thing we probably did that was pretty good was we didn’t let anyone else have a big night.”

It’s also a formula Neal is all too aware of.

“I just don’t know who’s going to be that (other) scorer,” Neal said.

Bairstow, who like Williams and Kirk are fourth-year players, said the team’s goal is to be at its best in March. To do that, he realizes help from one or more of the newcomers will have to emerge.

“We did have a lot of options last year, and that’s one reason why we were so successful,” Bairstow said. “We know the three of us have to carry the bulk of the scoring load, but at the same time we want … the young guys to keep shooting, keep making plays, because you want them really firing by the end of the season when we all come together.”

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