LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For the past two years, Sin City has been the home away from home for the New Mexico Lobos.
But as UNM was ripping through the past two Mountain West Conference tournaments in Las Vegas, Cullen Neal was left back in Albuquerque trying to win state high school titles for the Eldorado Eagles while watching his dad, Craig Neal, and the Lobos on TV.
Saturday night in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the Lobo freshman tried to make up for lost time, as well as quiet critics of his early-season struggles, scoring a game-high 24 points and nailing six 3-pointers to lead UNM to a 75-68 win over the Marquette Golden Eagles in the MGM Grand Showcase.
“All the fans we had out there, it felt like home,” Cullen Neal said of playing for the pro-Lobos crowd. “It was great playing for them.”
As for the criticism some of those very fans have been throwing his way over the first 10 games of the season as he struggled to find his shot and suffered from frequent turnovers:
“I don’t pay attention to it. … I just ignored it and tried to stay with the process,” Neal said. “I was aware of it, but it didn’t matter to me.”
UNM snapped a two game losing streak to improve to 8-3 while Marquette falls to 7-5.
Neal, starting in place of the injured Hugh Greenwood for the second consecutive game, found his groove early, finding first-time starter Deshawn Delaney for an alley-oop dunk just over a minute into the game and then hitting a 3-pointer two possessions later to put the Lobos up 7-0 with 17:18 showing on the first-half clock.
But Marquette guard Jake Thomas (11 points and three 3-pointers in the opening half to match Neal) fired back. And when the Golden Eagles post players continued to stifle UNM big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow with traps and double teams, the Lobos found themselves trailing 37-30 at the break.
Neal opened the second half scoring 11 of UNM’s first 16 points to regain the lead, 46-45, on a triple with 15:05 remaining in the game.
“I think me and Alex were double-teamed the whole game, and we really needed people to step up and make shots,” said Bairstow, who finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “That’s the only way to beat the double team is if other people can contribute and knock down the open shot. That’s what they did tonight.”
In fact, Bairstow and Kirk combined for eight assists, with four of them leading to Neal’s 3-pointers.
“Our big men can pass, can’t they?” Neal said.
But the game was back and forth, giving coach Craig Neal what he said was an NCAA Tournament game feel on a neutral court until Marquette took a 60-57 lead on a Devante Gardner layup with 6:43 remaining.
UNM then closed the game on an 18-8 scoring run, while hitting 12 of 16 free throws to ice the game.
UNM’s big three of Bairstow, Kirk and Kendall Williams were averaging 56 points per game before Saturday, but had just 37 against Marquette. The fact that the trio continued to look for teammates despite their previous struggles was something of which coach Neal was proud.
“They trusted their teammates and their teammates made the plays,” coach Neal said. “They made great passes out of the trap to open players, and those guys made plays tonight.”
Players other than the Big Three combined for 38 points, thanks primarily to Cullen Neal’s 24 and a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) from Delaney.
“I thought it was going to happen eventually,” Bairstow said of scoring help beyond the Big Three. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be tonight or in the future.”
Craig Neal said he was just happy it was now rather than later.
“I’m really, really proud of my guys,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a tough game. With suffering two losses in a row, I kind of knew they were going to bounce back, but until they do it, you really don’t know.”
Williams ended with 14 points, giving UNM four double-figure scorers.
Marquette was led by 17 from Thomas, 15 from Jamil Wilson and 10 from Todd Mayo. UNM outrebounded the Golden Eagles 37-30.