FRESNO, Calif. — Message received.
Three days after their coach tore into them for losing the championship edge they’d shown over the past two seasons, the New Mexico Lobos responded with what their coach said was as focused a defensive effort as they’ve had all season, beating the Fresno State Bulldogs 89-78 in front of an announced crowd of 6,499 at the Save Mart Center.
“I really liked the way our guys practiced,” Craig Neal said. “I got my message across and I was really proud of the way they came out and guarded in the first half. … If we continue that effort defensively, we’re going to have a really successful year, which we want to have.”
The Lobos held Fresno State to 36.7 percent shooting and got 31 points off the bench en route to pushing its record to 13-4 overall and 4-1 in Mountain West play, drawing even with Nevada for second place in the league behind San Diego State.
“I thought our effort defensively, I thought our focus defensively was a lot better than its been in any game,” Neal added.
While the defense was the key in returning to form, at least for one night, it didn’t hurt that the Lobos again had the services of senior Cameron Bairstow, who once again proved unguardable. The 6-foot-9 forward scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the second half thanks in large part to hitting a career-high 14 free throws on 19 attempts.
“He’s just an aggressive player offensively,” Fresno State head coach Rodney Terry said. “His initial duck in and positioning in the post is pretty superior. Not only in our league, but I think in the country, he’s as good as any low post player trying to establish himself initially.”
The Bulldogs (8-11, 1-5) were in the game early thanks to five first-half 3-pointers. A Tyler Johnson 3-pointer with 4:24 left in the first half opened up a four-point lead at 27-23.
Had it not been for 12 first-half points from freshman Cullen Neal (he finished with 17 in the game), the Lobos might have been in trouble.
But UNM clamped down after Johnson’s 3-pointer, holding Fresno State without a point over the next 6 minutes, 37 seconds (spanning over the first and second halves). In a 13:06 stretch after the Johnson 3-pointer, UNM outscored Fresno State 30-11, opening up a 53-38 lead on a Hugh Greenwood jumper with 11:18 remaining in the game.
A Greenwood triple with 7:36 remaining gave UNM its largest lead at 67-49.
Then the game came to what seemed like a screeching halt thanks to a plethora of whistles.
After the teams combined for five free-throw attempts in the first half on nine called personal fouls, the second half featured 69 free-throw attempts and 43 fouls.
There were 43 free throws attempted in the final 6:52 alone.
“It was really a tale of two halves — how the refs called the first half and how they called the second half,” Bairstow said. “That really impacted the game, and I was able to get to the free-throw line in the later stages.”
Three other Lobos joined Bairstow (22) and Neal (17) as double-digit scorers. Kendall Williams had 13 points and three assists, Alex Kirk had 12 points and blocked two shots, and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas came off the bench for 10 points. UNM shot 53.1 percent from the field (26-of-49), hit eight 3-pointers and shot 70.7 percent from the free-throw line (29-of-41).
It was the type of complete team effort that the Lobos’ head coach said they did not show in Wednesday’s home loss to UNLV.
“We took it personally,” Cullen Neal said.
“We lost at home in the Pit. We had to come out and play better.”
Fresno State senior Tyler Johnson led four double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs with 16 points, but they didn’t come easy.
“It was frustrating,” Johnson said of the Lobos defense. “They did the same thing last year as far as making me work to get anything.”
NEW MEXICO (13-4)
Bairstow 4-8 14-19 22, Kirk 5-8 2-6 12, Greenwood 3-6 0-0 8, K. Williams 3-8 5-5 13, Delaney 1-3 1-2 3, Thomas 2-4 4-5 10, Aget 1-1 0-0 2, Neal 6-10 3-4 17, Lindsay 0-0 0-0 0, Banyard 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 26-49 29-41 89.
FRESNO ST. (8-11)
Edo 2-3 2-3 6, Watson 3-9 3-4 12, Johnson 4-9 7-8 16, Guerrero 5-15 2-2 15, Harris 4-14 6-8 15, Giddings 2-5 0-0 4, Davis 1-2 1-2 3, Huddleston 1-3 5-6 7. Totals 22-60 26-33 78.
Halftime—New Mexico 32-27. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 8-22 (Greenwood 2-4, Thomas 2-4, K. Williams 2-5, Neal 2-6, Kirk 0-1, Delaney 0-2), Fresno St. 8-25 (Watson 3-5, Guerrero 3-9, Johnson 1-3, Harris 1-5, Giddings 0-1, Huddleston 0-2). Fouled Out—Bairstow, Davis, Greenwood, Watson. Rebounds—New Mexico 35 (Bairstow 8), Fresno St. 35 (Watson 8). Assists—New Mexico 14 (Delaney 4), Fresno St. 9 (Guerrero, Harris 3). Total Fouls—New Mexico 25, Fresno St. 27. A—6,499.