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Neal wants Lobos to develop killer instinct

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New Mexico coach Craig Neal wants his Lobos to dominate games down the stretch. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico coach Craig Neal wants his Lobos to dominate games down the stretch. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The New Mexico Lobos were all smiles Saturday night after holding off the Colorado State Rams 80-73 in the Pit.

But Colorado State scoring 25 points in the final 5 minutes, 51 seconds wasn’t exactly the final act Lobos coach Craig Neal had in mind.

“What I told our guys is when we get up 13, that’s when we’ve got to put teams away,” Craig Neal said. “To win championships, you’ve got to guard.”

But the late-game defensive lapses have been fairly common this season for the Lobos.

Some games it has been the final five minutes. Others, the final eight or 10 minutes. But more often than Neal would like, his team has failed to contain the opposition from scoring down the stretch.

Through 13 games, UNM has outscored opponents 737-626 (56.7-48.2 per game) through the first 30 minutes. But as the 10-minute mark turns on the second-half clock, the Lobos have been outscored 298-275 (22.9-21.2). It’s close, but not exactly the sign of a championship team.

Aside from the fact they aren’t winning what amounts to the fourth quarter of games, the Lobos are allowing opponents to score 2.1 points per minute down the stretch (the final 10 minutes plus UNM’s Nov. 21 double overtime win over UAB). UNM allows 1.6 points per minute in the first 30 minutes of games.

That could loom large in tight league games over the next two months.

“It’s definitely been a problem so far,” senior power forward Cameron Bairstow said. “A lot of it’s mental being able to stay mentally engaged and not zoning out the last eight minutes of the game when you’re up by 10.”

Two of UNM’s three losses this season have seen a late collapse. It was outscored by 14 points after the 10-minute mark of the Nov. 22 loss to Massachusetts and by 11 at Kansas on Dec. 14.

Lobo Hugh Greenwood, left, tries to block Colorado State’s Jon Octeus during Saturday’s game in the Pit. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Lobo Hugh Greenwood, left, tries to block Colorado State’s Jon Octeus during Saturday’s game in the Pit. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM has also let lesser teams close hard rather than finishing them off to Neal’s liking. Charleston Southern outscored UNM by 11 after the 10-minute mark on Nov. 17 (the Lobos still won by 16), and Grand Canyon outscored UNM by 13 in the final 10 minutes on Dec. 23 (the Lobos won by 12).

“It’s something that we’ve been able to overcome so far,” Bairstow said, “but it’s something we need to fix moving forward because it could be a serious issue.”

STARTING LINEUP: With junior Hugh Greenwood back in the starting lineup on Saturday it marked the first time this season UNM’s starting five included him, Kendall Williams, Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Deshawn Delaney. Delaney was inserted into the starting lineup against Marquette on Dec. 21, one of the three games Greenwood missed nursing his wrist injury.

On Greenwood’s return, Neal said he was very pleased, adding his hesitation last week to announce a starting lineup was more about whether he was going to start freshman Cullen Neal or Delaney as the fifth starter.

As for Greenwood, Craig Neal said, “Back to back Mountain West championships he’s been our starting point guard. He gives you everything he has.”

Greenwood hit two 3-pointers on Saturday, which was a welcome sight for the Lobo coaching staff. The last time the point guard was on the court was in the Dec. 14 loss to Kansas. The pain in his wrist rendered him incapable of shooting from the perimeter.

“He’ll probably get mad at me for saying it, but I thought he looked more comfortable shooting the ball than he’s ever looked here,” Craig Neal said.

X-MAN IN ATTENDANCE: Xavier Adams, a Class of 2014 signee of the Lobos who is a senior guard at Flower Mound (Texas) Marcus High School, was in attendance for Saturday’s game.

Along with his mother and sister, Adams flew in Saturday morning. It was not an official recruiting visit paid for by UNM.

Adams told the Journal he may try to get back to Albuquerque for the Feb. 22 game against San Diego State, but said he isn’t sure he will be able to.

LOBO LINKS: Geoff Grammer’s blog | Schedule/Results | Roster

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