So the season didn’t end Saturday night?
The No. 25 New Mexico Lobos took about 30 minutes to realize that Tuesday night in the Pit, but once they did they closed out the Utah State Aggies with the same dominance that returned the program to the national radar and has them in position to win a third consecutive Mountain West championship.
The Lobos closed the game on a 28-11 run and got double-doubles from Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow to beat the Aggies 67-58, improve to 22-5 overall and remain tied with San Diego State atop the Mountain West at 13-2.
“I think that’s a reaction to fear,” Lobos head coach Craig Neal said of his team finally turning it on down the stretch to put away the feisty Aggies.
After dominant wins last week on the road at UNLV on Wednesday and vs. then-No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday night, the Lobos appeared headed for a letdown against Utah State (15-13, 5-11), which led by one at halftime (27-26) and opened up as much as an eight-point lead in the second half.
“That was uninspired basketball in the first half. Very uninspired,” Craig Neal admitted.
When Preston Medlin converted a 3-point play out of a media timeout with 11:27 left in the game, Utah State had its biggest lead of the game at 47-39, leading to more than a few moans and groans from a frustrated crowd.
“We’ve been in that spot before,” Kirk said. “Yeah, they were a tough team. They were hitting shots, we weren’t. You could say we were a little lackadaisical, but I felt like we were right in position and we were just waiting to make our run.”
His coach thought it was a little more than merely thinking they could flip a switch that got his team going.
“When you have fear you’re going to lose and lose something you’ve worked the whole season for, I think it comes from them having a sense of urgency,” Neal said. “… They don’t like to lose. They’re a competitive bunch and they dug pretty deep tonight.”
That sense of urgency seemed to come not as much from the starting five as it did from the bench and freshman Cullen Neal in particular.
After a first-half 3-pointer was followed by a shot his dad and coach didn’t particularly care for, there was a very visible argument on the bench between the father and son. The younger Neal played just three minutes in the first half and didn’t return to the floor until 14:28 was showing on the second half clock. And when he did, he was a different player.
“I’ve been around him most of his life,” Craig Neal said. “I know how to push his buttons and I know how good he can be. That’s why we recruited him and that’s why he’s here. I think he’s going to be a really, really good player for us and he gave us that spark we needed.”
After a Bairstow bucket made it 47-41 Utah State, it was a designed play for a quick Cullen Neal 3-pointer out of a timeout that cut the lead to 47-44 and seemed to wake the 15,352 Pit fans up for the home stretch.
UNM used scoring runs of 9-0 and then 12-0 to open up a 62-52 lead with 3:28 to play.
With the bench kick-starting the run, it was Bairstow (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Kirk (13 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots) that closed the door. UNM outrebounded Utah State 46-30 and the Aggies couldn’t score in the paint down the stretch.
Senior guard Kendall Williams had 10 points and Cullen Neal (12 points) and Hugh Greenwood each hit three 3-pointers on the night. UNM only hit 52.4 percent of its free throws (11-21), but Utah State didn’t capitalize as it only hit 50 percent (6-of-12) from the free throw line.
Medlin had a game-high 19 points and hit four 3-pointers, but it was hardly enough as no other Aggies player reached double figures.
“It’s these games you have to win to be a champion and last I checked, we’re still champions until somebody beats us,” Craig Neal said.