ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When 7-foot junior center Alex Kirk drained an open 3-pointer with 8 minutes left in the first half of Saturday’s win over Nevada, the weight of the Pit world seemed to be lifted off his shoulders.
“I think I heard half the crowd say ‘Don’t shoot it!'” Kirk said. “I’m not sure what (coach Craig Neal’s) reaction was, but it went in, so hopefully it was good.”
One approving spectator about 15 rows up from the south baseline was Pat Kirk, Alex’s mother, who quickly jumped up and gave the standing ovation of a very happy, and relieved, mother.
The skilled big man out of Los Alamos entered the season with one of his biggest threats being his ability to stretch defenses and pull opposing big men out of the paint. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but was certainly good enough for Neal to draw up plays for him to shoot from beyond the arc.
But when Kirk fell into an 0-for-16 slump from 3-point range, the grumblings of his hometown fans grew loud, even if that dry spell was over a 12-game stretch.
Kirk broke the 3-point slump in Wednesday’s loss at Boise State with a first half 3-pointer that brought several of his teammates to their feet on the bench. But the big man on Saturday acknowledged hitting one – finally – in front of the home crowd was a relief.
Of course, Kirk is still just 10-of-46 (21.7 percent) from 3-point range, but he was 2-of-4 last week. If his long-range stroke is back at even a 30-percent clip or so, that’s enough for opposing coaches to rewrite the scouting report on him and open things inside for the Lobos.
MORE MERV?: Sophomore forward Nick Banyard on Saturday got his first “did not play” of the season. Neal said it was a “coach’s decision” and wasn’t injury-related. While Neal wouldn’t elaborate on Banyard, he did rave about his replacement in the rotation, sophomore forward Merv Lindsay.
“I just know he’s going to play hard and he’s going to do the little things and he cares,” Neal said. “That was my decision to play that way, but it wasn’t only my decision. We have six staff members, and that’s what we decided to do.”
SOME SEASON HIGHS: The Lobos’ 27 assists against Nevada were two better than their previous high of 25 against Charleston Southern on Nov. 17. It was also the season high in the Mountain West against a Division I opponent (San Diego State had 27 against NAIA St. Katherine).
ON THE CALL: Legendary sportscaster Brent Musburger and Hall of Fame former coach Bob Knight will be on the call for ESPN2 on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Nev., when the Lobos play at UNLV.
Knight called the Lobos’ road win over Cincinnati in 2012.
THEY AREN’T LAST: Thanks to Nevada going just 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) from the free throw line on Saturday, the season average for Lobo opponents dropped to 76.4 percent from the charity stripe.
It moved UNM from dead last among 351 Division I teams for free throw defense (no, there really isn’t any defense you can play against a free throw) up to 350th. Longwood University of the Big South Conference has seen its opponents hit 76.5 percent of their free throws this season, the highest percentage in the nation.