SAN JOSE, Calif. — On Wednesday night in Laramie, Wyo., the rim was too high.
On Saturday night in San Jose, it seemed to have a lid on it.
The New Mexico Lobos overcame a rough shooting performance, especially from the free-throw line, to sneak by league newcomer San Jose State 69-65 in front of 2,078 fans in the Event Center and improve to 3-0 in Mountain West play. It’s the second best start for the Lobos in 14 seasons since the conference began.
“It’s hard in this conference on the road. It doesn’t matter who you play,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “(The Spartans) cause problems because they can make shots. … They made some shots and we didn’t play very well. And anytime you can play like we did and still win is huge.”
The Lobos went 2-0 on the week’s road trip, beating Wyoming 72-69 in overtime on Wednesday. In that game, the height of one rim had to be altered at halftime.
San Jose State (6-10, 0-4) hit 11 3-pointers to keep within reach of the two-time defending league champions. Guard Jaleel Williams had six of those 3’s and had a game-high 24 points.
“It’s kind of a mismatch with (Jaleel) Williams and Cam (Bairstow) guarding him because he’s really a guard,” Neal said.
The Lobos (12-3 overall) closed out the game with tough defense and a heavy dose of Kendall Williams.
The senior guard, who had several family members in attendance from all over California, struggled from the floor much of the game before turning it on with a 3-pointer with 3 minutes remaining to regain the lead for UNM at 61-60. Those were the first of 10 consecutive points scored by Williams, who ended with a team-high 19 to go along with seven assists, six rebounds and three steals.
“I think when he got tired (midway through the second half), I took him out and got him a rest,” Neal said of Williams. “… He came in and scored 10 points because I told him, ‘Take us home.’ And he did it.”
In addition to Williams’ late-game offense, the Lobos held San Jose State to just one basket between the 3:22 mark and a meaningless layup at the buzzer.
As for Williams, he was more happy about the win than his stat line.
“That’s it. It’s the second best start, and we’re trying to make it the best start and best finish,” Williams said. “The ceiling hasn’t been reached for us, which is nice.”
The Spartans took a 53-49 lead with 7:16 remaining on three Rashad Muhammad free throws. Muhammad, a freshman, had 16 points off the bench and was a thorn in the Lobos’ side. His 3-pointer with 1:30 left from about 6 feet beyond the arc tied the game at 63-63. UNM scored the next six points.
But it wasn’t pretty early. The Lobos shot just 36.1 percent in the first half, including 1-of-10 on 3-pointers. UNM’s top three scorers on the season — Bairstow, Williams and Kirk — were a combined 9-of-26 (34.6 percent) in the half.
And the Lobos hit just 15-of-27 from the charity stripe. “We’ve got to get to work on that,” Neal said.
For the game, UNM shot 39 percent (23-of-59). The fact that the Spartans out-rebounded UNM 42-37 Neal chalked up to the poor free-throw shooting, with the Lobos having 12 misses from the line, 11 rebounded by the Spartans.
Bairstow had 15 points and Deshawn Delaney, who had three 3-pointers all season, scored a season-high 12.
“I’ve been working on my jump shot a lot,” Delaney said. “The main thing is I came out with confidence.”