ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Monday, University of New Mexico head coach Craig Neal said he thought maybe expectations for his team this season were “unrealistic and unfair” to his players.
The comment may have been as much cautionary of things to come as anything.
Playing without starting point guard Hugh Greenwood, the Lobo men’s basketball team got punched early and often by a relentless New Mexico State Aggies team clearly unafraid of their instate rivals in a 67-61 win in front of 15,411 fans in the sold-out Pit on Tuesday night.
“It’s not just another win,” New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies said. “It’s a big win.”
For the Aggies (9-5), the win is just the third in 14 tries vs. UNM in Menzies’ seven seasons as head coach. But it gives NMSU a winning 3-1 record in its annual four-game rivalry series with UTEP (2-0) and UNM (1-1) for the first time in the coach’s tenure.
“At the end of the day, a loss is a loss,” Neal said. “It’s an instate rivalry and that hasn’t happened often since we’ve been here, so it is a different feeling. My hat is off to them. They played terrific.”
For UNM (7-3), the loss again cast doubts about the potential of the team when newcomers must be relied on to play significant roles.
“I think today was a good wake-up call,” senior forward Cameron Bairstow said after scoring a game-high 25 points to go along with three blocked shots and three steals. “I think we can be a very good basketball team. I think today showed our inexperience with how we opened the game and how we finished the game. … It’s going to be a process for the young guys.”
Greenwood’s right-wrist injury, which happened against NMSU in the Lobos’ Dec. 4 win in Las Cruces, ended his 51-consecutive-game start streak Tuesday night. UNM looked out of sync early as the Aggies came out on fire.
Guard K.C. Ross Miller hit a 3-pointer to open the game before 6-foot-10 power forward Tshilidzi Nephawe and 7-5 center Sim Bhullar scored the next 11 NMSU points. Three straight NMSU triples – two from Kevin Aronis and one from Daniel Mullings – put the Aggies up 23-5 over the shellshocked Lobos.
“People don’t realize how important Hugh is to our entire structure to be able to slow everything down, set everything up, keep everyone composed, bring everyone together in the huddles,” Bairstow said. “He’s really a good on-court leader. That’s his biggest attribute to this team. We really did miss that today.”
Maybe more crushing to the Lobos’ offense early was the added ball-handling duties placed on senior Kendall Williams who, despite 19.7 points entering the game, was credited with only one first half shot – a missed 3-pointer in transition.
NMSU led 39-26 at halftime thanks in large part to seven 3-pointers.
UNM, meanwhile went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc in the first half and 0-7 in the game, marking the first time in 737 games without a made 3-pointer (UNM went 0-for-8 from 3-point range against Colorado State on Jan. 3, 1991).
NMSU extended the lead to 43-28 early in the second half before UNM began to chip away, using both defense and a concentrated effort to feed the post.
Kirk (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Bairstow were the focus as Nephawe and Bhullar were in foul trouble. Williams (17 points, five turnovers) began attacking the basket in the final 10 minutes, hitting eight of his 11 free throws from the 9:35 mark down.
His three free throws followed by a Bairstow basket with 51 seconds to go in the game pulled UNM within 61-59. And when the Lobos stole the ball at the other end, it seemed as though the rivalry would indeed revert to its old ways.
But Arthur Edwards dribbled the ball the length of the floor only to pass up a layup opportunity in favor of freshman Cullen Neal, whose shot was blocked by Renaldo Dixon with 34 seconds remaining. Ross-Miller went 6-of-6 from the free-throw line from that point on to ice the win for the Aggies. He finished with an NMSU-high 16 points, while Nephawe and Mullings each added 14.
After UNM’s big three scorers (Bairstow, Kirk and Williams), the rest of the Lobos combined to shoot 2-of-19 (10.5 percent) for eight points.
Still, Craig Neal said Monday’s comments weren’t meant to suggest his team wouldn’t be ready for the Aggies or that he had lost faith in his team’s supporting cast. Rather, it was “coachspeak” trying to take pressure off the newcomers on his team who hadn’t gotten up to speed as many had expected.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Craig Neal said. “I love my team. But I think we’ve got a long way to go.”
STREAK OVER: With Greenwood’s start streak over at 51 games, UNM’s active leader in consecutive starts is Kirk at 43 straight games.
INJURY BUG: In addition to Greenwood’s wrist, which remains a “day-to-day” decision heading into Saturday’s game against Marquette in Las Vegas, Nev., the Lobos also played with an injured Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas, who broke his nose in Monday’s practice. Thomas played Tuesday with a large mask on his face and will be fitted today for a smaller protective mask he will wear moving forward.