ST. LOUIS – It wasn’t Harvard, but you could hardly tell.
The yearlong quest to achieve success in the NCAA Tournament was greatly complicated in the first 6 minutes, 22 seconds Friday afternoon in the Scottrade Center.
The Stanford Cardinal, the 10 seed in the South Region, jumped out to a 20-4 lead and held on down the stretch, beating No. 7 New Mexico 58-53 in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64. For the second consecutive season, Lobos ended their season as a higher-seeded team that once again failed to reach the second week of college basketball’s biggest event.
“We’ve got to figure some of that out,” first-year Lobos head coach Craig Neal said. “Hopefully we’ll continue the program in the right direction and be able to get over the hump sooner rather than later.”
While the Lobos (27-7), who also fell behind and couldn’t recover against 14th-seeded Harvard as a No. 3 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, managed to climb out of the early hole Friday to tie the game in the second half at 45-45, it seemed the rally took all the energy out of them. Several Lobos left jump shots short and played a step slow on defense down the stretch as the Cardinal held on to advance to Sunday’s Round of 32 matchup with No. 2 Kansas.
UNM senior Cameron Bairstow scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds to cap off one of the most dominant single seasons in Lobos history, but it was hardly enough. His “Big Three” running mates of junior center Alex Kirk and senior guard Kendall Williams combined for one of their least productive games of the season, scoring 24 points below their combined season average.
Kirk, saddled with foul trouble early that began on the opening possession of the game, finished with three points on 0-for-3 shooting.
“I felt like I was in foul trouble and we weren’t able to get anything going,” said Kirk. “I think I was kind of hesitant from then on (so I wouldn’t get another foul) and probably wasn’t as aggressive enough.”
As a dual byproduct of Kirk’s foul trouble and Bairstow’s dominance, the Lobos really never made much effort to utilize the 7-footer on the offensive side of the ball with any regularity. He didn’t have a field goal attempt in 11 first-half minutes, and just two of his three second-half shots were the result of touches within 10 feet of the basket.
“We never really tried to establish me inside going at (Stanford forward Dwight) Powell,” Kirk said. “We tried to get the ball inside to Cam, and I think we rode that as long as we possibly could. And it was working.”
Williams, meanwhile, struggled to find his shot while being defended most of the game by former AAU teammate Anthony Brown. Williams scored just three points on 1-of-9 shooting to go along with five assists and two turnovers.
“I thought I had good looks,” Williams said. “Some of them were short. The first one was a long air ball, and I just couldn’t find the hoop, so that’s kind of the end of that story.”
But the end of the story was really about what happened at the beginning of the game.
After Bairstow scored two baskets in the first 1:10 of the game for a 4-3 UNM lead, the Cardinal got white hot while the Lobos seemed to become paralyzed on the national stage.
Over the next nine possessions, UNM went 0-for-7 from the field and turned the ball over twice. Stanford, meanwhile, hit its first six shots and eight of its first 10, using a 17-0 run to push its lead to 20-4 with 13:37 remaining in the opening half.
“They made shots. We didn’t make shots,” said junior guard Hugh Greenwood, who scored nine points on three 3-pointers in the game. “We came in prepared. Nothing we hadn’t seen before. They did a lot more pick and roll than we thought, but we’ve been dealing with (San Diego State guard Xavier) Thames a lot the last few weeks, and he’s one of the best coming off pick and roll, so that wasn’t an issue.”
UNM managed to weather the storm, closing out the first half on an 8-0 run that pulled the Lobos within 32-27 at the break.
“We know, based on watching the tape, that they were a team that would keep fighting and they would come back,” Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They don’t have droughts that last the entire game.”
To open the second half, Bairstow scored four baskets inside on UNM’s first four possessions, drawing within 37-35.
But then Williams missed a 3-pointer and Greenwood missed another on the next two possessions. By then the Cardinal were effectively switching up zone and man defenses to prevent Bairstow from many more touches.
A Cullen Neal layup with 10:07 left in regulation did tie the game 45-45, but the rally to that point seemed to be all that the Lobos had left in them.
UNM didn’t score its next field goal for nearly seven minutes, and Stanford iced the game at the free-throw line in the closing moments.
“Just feel really bad for our guys,” coach Neal said. “… Not a lot of fun, and we’ve been here before.”