LAS VEGAS, Nev. – It was just like old times for the New Mexico Lobos on Thursday night in the Thomas & Mack Center.
Except for coach Craig Neal.
While the 20th-ranked Lobos, and their thousands of fans in the stands who have been a big part of the team’s past two Mountain West Tournament titles, all looked right at home during a 93-77 win over Fresno State in the MWC Tournament quarterfinals, Neal was at a loss as to where to go for the postgame media session.
Luckily for the rookie head coach, his senior stars – Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams – have been down this road a time or two.
“We were walking here down the long hallway (under the arena’s bleachers from the team locker room to the postgame media session) and Kendall kept talking to Cam, ‘Have you been this way?’ He forgot Cam was all-tournament (in 2013),” Neal said. “Cam was looking at me. I go, ‘I know, I haven’t been down this hallway,’ because it’s my first time (as a head coach). Kendall goes, ‘I’m sorry, coach. I keep forgetting.’ ”
Thursday may have been Neal’s first time making his way down that hallway to the postgame news conference, but if his team continues to play like it did against the Bulldogs, it won’t be his last.
UNM got a combined 42 points from big men Alex Kirk and Bairstow (21 apiece), 16 rebounds and four blocked shots to go along with 17 points and nine assists from Williams as the No. 2 seed Lobos (25-6) led wire to wire against the Bulldogs to advance to tonight’s semifinals against the winner of the late Boise State/Nevada quarterfinal.
Just five days after the team had their regular-season title ripped from their grasp in a late-game collapse in Southern California to the league’s top-seeded San Diego State Aztecs, the Lobos looked again like a team capable of not only cutting nets in Las Vegas but maybe more.
“They’re a team that cannot only advance in this tournament – have a chance to win this tournament – but go a long way in the NCAA Tournament,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. “They have all the ingredients to be a Sweet 16-type team.”
The Bulldogs (17-16) had entered the league tournament playing its best basketball of the season as winners of nine of their previous 11 games before running into the Lobos frontcourt of Bairstow and Kirk.
“Those are grown men inside right there now,” Terry said.
UNM jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first 4:23 of the game thanks to eight points from their frontcourt duo. By the time UNM opened up its largest lead of 19 points with 8:16 remaining in the game, Bairstow and Kirk had already scored 32 points.
UNM’s size, as is often the case, was simply too much for the Bulldogs. The Lobos outscored Fresno State 42-20 in the paint and out-rebounded the Bulldogs 40-25.
And unlike Saturday in the loss to SDSU, the Lobo guards made sure to keep feeding the bigs throughout the game.
“Making sure they’re (Bairstow and Kirk) involved,” Williams said of what he and fellow guard Hugh Greenwood concentrated on down the stretch. “… I think what really happened over the weekend helped us mature against the full-court pressure, just not only focusing on getting it past half court but also executing our game plan and making sure we stay inside out with that pressure.”
Williams’ distribution to the Lobo big men was only part of the story. He was also assigned to defend Fresno State’s leading scorer Tyler Johnson, who was held to just two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“Early in the year our offense was way ahead of our defense,” Neal said. “Now I think our defense has overtaken our offense.”
If that’s the case, Neal will likely have to make a return trip down that hall a couple more times this week in Las Vegas.
At least now, he knows the way.