Lobos overcome 13-point deficit, stay in first place
FRESNO, Calif. – The New Mexico Lobos, as only they can, proved again Wednesday night that there is a very fine line between being a nationally ranked, first-place team in the Mountain West Conference and being the team sitting at the bottom.
Keyed by timely steals and hard-nosed defense down the stretch, the Lobos allowed only one basket in the final 10 minutes, 3 seconds of the game and beat the Fresno State Bulldogs 54-48 in front of a generously announced turnout of 8,241 in the Save Mart Center.
After erasing an 11-point halftime deficit, the Lobos (21-4, 8-2 in the Mountain West) remain alone in first place in the league standings despite Colorado State’s home win over San Diego State, improving the Rams to 20-4 and 7-2 in league games.
“They just find a way,” New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said, shaking his head trying to explain his team’s good fortune as he has after several close games this season.
“They shoot 37 percent and win a road game. … They just find ways to win and make big shots when they need to.”
It looked like it would be a laugher early on as Fresno State (8-15, 2-8) started slow.
A Demetrius Walker jumper with 8:12 remaining in the first half put UNM up 16-9, and everything seemed to be going the way of the first-place Lobos.
But that was the final basket of the half for UNM (the Lobos did hit four free throws) and Fresno State caught fire on offense, closing the half out on a 22-4 run. The Bulldogs held a 31-20 halftime lead.
“We had a really bad eight-minute stretch where we didn’t make any shots, and I thought we were soft defensively,” Alford said.
The Lobo’s offensive woes – they hit just 7-of-27 shots (25.9 percent) in the first half – brought back bad memories of losses at San Diego State and Saint Louis that featured long scoring droughts.
“It wasn’t really a basketball game,” UNM sophomore point guard Hugh Greenwood said. “I don’t know how to describe it. To be up seven, then come into the half down 11. It’s deflating.”
But UNM, which was actually down by 13 in the first half, managed to erase a double-digit second-half deficit for the fourth time this season by getting back to a defense-first mindset.
“The guys, the players deserve the credit,” Alford said. “The players got the job done in the second half. You’re down 11 on the road at half, and you play the way we played in the second half, it was outstanding.”
A Tony Snell 3-pointer with 16:33 left capped a 7-0 run for UNM out of the break, cutting the Fresno State lead to 33-27. By the 14-minute mark, the Lobos had it down to 35-33.
They didn’t take their first lead of the second half until a Kendall Williams dunk, off a beautiful back-door pass from Snell, with 11:07 remaining to go up 41-40.
Then Fresno answered with a 5-0 run capped by an Aaron Anderson 3-pointer with 10:03 remaining to put the Bulldogs up 45-41.
“It’s the definition of chipping away,” Greenwood said. “We’d score five points, they’d score four points. We were slowly, slowly chipping away.”
After the Anderson 3-pointer, FSU hit only one more shot – a Kevin Olekaibe 3-pointer – in the final 10 minutes of the game.
A Cameron Bairstow dunk with 1:29 remaining put UNM up for good at 49-48, and the Lobos executed at every turn in the closing minute.
Sophomore center Alex Kirk had 10 points, nine rebounds and a career-high six blocked shots. Bairstow added 10 boards. Williams had a team-high 13 points and five assists. Greenwood had seven points, three assists, five rebounds and three steals, including two off inbounds plays, the last with 6.2 seconds left, as Fresno State trailed 52-48.
Instead, Greenwood stole the ball, passed up court to Williams for a dunk and an exclamation point.
Fresno State was held to 32.7 percent shooting (18-of-55). Olekaibe led all Bulldogs with 11 points, and Kevin Foster came off the bench with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
WALKER INJURED: UNM junior guard Demetrius Walker hurt his left knee late in the first half and did not return to the game. He had five points in seven minutes of play. Alford said he is still unsure the extent of the injury.
Walker walked out of the locker room on his own power, albeit with a noticeable limp.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal