Tuesday night, his team sent a message of its own, reminding the rest of the league it isn’t ready to go away quietly just yet.
New Mexico opened a 17-point first-half lead and held on down the stretch to knock off Boise State, 84-75, to grab hold of lone possession of second place in the league standings.
“I thought we beat an excellent basketball team,” said Neal, whose team is 14-4 overall and 5-1 in league play. “I think they’re very dangerous. They have a lot of pieces. …
“I thought our guys in the last two games have come out with that fire and competitive nature that they’ve always had.”
Boise State dropped to 13-6, 3-3.
UNM used an 8-0 scoring run capped by a Hugh Greenwood offensive put-back with 3:58 remaining in the first half to open its largest lead of the game at 32-15, a contrast to last week’s loss to UNLV when UNM came out flat and trailed by as many as 16 points midway through the opening half.
Greenwood, who had his best offensive game of the season with 20 points and a career-high-tying five 3-pointers, said it was a different feel for the team from the pregame warm-ups until the final buzzer. The 6-foot-3 junior guard who missed three games in December with an injured right wrist, said it was a long time coming and he was just happy to help his team win such a big game.
His 12 points at halftime tied with backcourt partner Kendall Williams for a game-high at the break as UNM took a 40-27 lead.
But Boise State methodically chipped away at the Lobo lead in the second half. Boise State leading scorer Anthony Drmic, who was held scoreless in the first half, hit a 3-pointer with 5:51 remaining in the game to cut the lead to 69-64.
UNM’s defense did just enough down the stretch to overcome the Lobos shooting just 9-of-20 from the free-throw line in the final 13:30 of the game.
Alex Kirk, who had 15 points and five blocks in the game, made four consecutive free throws with 1:07 remaining to ice the game.
Broncos center Ryan Watkins did his part to keep the game close with 15 points and 22 rebounds. Derrick Marks led the Broncos with 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting to go along with six turnovers.
The matchup many thought would be key in the game was Cameron Bairstow trying to defend a Boise State guard as the Broncos usually use a four-guard lineup. It never really came to fruition as Broncos head coach Leon Rice started 6-foot-7 freshman Nick Duncan instead. And while he ended up with 16 points and hit five 3-pointers with Bairstow on the defense much of the night, Duncan couldn’t stop his fellow Aussie and UNM’s leading scorer from scoring 17 of his own.
“That’s for all you experts to talk about Cam guarding a guard,” Neal said when asked if he was surprised the Broncos didn’t play their usual four-guard lineup. “I think they figured out that they haven’t beaten us in five attempts and to play us, you have to play big-big because you have to guard us.”
Neal later admitted he was surprised, as was Duncan, apparently after his 32 minutes of court time.
“I talked to him during the game and he said he was exhausted because he’s only been playing like 15 minutes a game,” Bairstow said “… When they do go to the four-guard lineup, you really have to exploit them inside. That’s really the only way they’re going to change it — they’re either going to keep going to it because it definitely has an offensive advantage to it, but it has a defensive disadvantage.”
Williams had 18 points and nine assists and the Lobos shot 57.1 percent on the night, while holding the usually offensively gifted Broncos to 37.5 percent shooting, including 30.8 percent from 3-point range (8-of-26).