(Postgame videos can be viewed below the story)
His role is to provide a spark off the bench, bring his teammates renewed energy, play solid defense and chip in a field goal or two.
On Saturday, back-up junior point guard Jamal Fenton did all that — after a pretty good tail-chewing by his coach — and turned the game around as well.
Fenton, a 5-foot-9 package of spunk and quickness, made a number of crucial plays to help New Mexico to a 71-54 Mountain West Conference men’s basketball victory against TCU in the Pit.
“Jamal’s a leader for us, and I thought he was a little sluggish in the first half, and he got chewed (out) pretty good,” Alford said of getting on his back-up point guard. “In the second half Jamal did the things we need for him to do. He got our tempo going again. We got a little stagnant offensively, and he got us going pretty good.”
As did starting sophomore guards Tony Snell (18 points, four assists) and Kendall Williams (14 points, five assists).
The win pulled the Lobos (17-4, 3-2) within a game of the MWC lead and kept them tied for third place after Colorado State (14-6, 3-2) surprised 13th-ranked San Diego State 77-60 earlier in the day in Fort Collins, Colo. UNM manhandled CSU 85-52 on Wednesday in the Pit.
UNLV (20-3, 4-1), ranked 12th in the nation, is alone in second place after an overtime victory at Air Force (11-8, 1-4) on Saturday evening. UNM is tied with Colorado State and Wyoming (17-4, 3-2).
The Lobos struggled with the Horned Frogs (12-8, 2-3) much of the first half and led just 29-26 with two minutes left in the period. But Fenton then made a great play by drawing a charge against TCU star point guard Hank Thorns on a 3-on-2 Frog fast break, denying TCU a hoop that would have cut the margin to one.
“I just had to do an energy play for the team,” Fenton said. “Coach always tells me ‘don’t leave your feet,’ and I saw Thorns leave his feet. So I kind of slid under him, and gave him a little acting job and they gave me the charge. I though it was a block, to be honest.”
The Lobos turned the turnover into points on a jumper by Phillip McDonald, then Fenton came up with a loose ball moments later and raced to the other end of the floor with just seconds left. He drove and had his shot blocked, but McDonald grabbed the rebound and hit a fade-away jumper at the halftime horn to make it 33-26.
“I knew that if Jamal got blocked, I had to get there somehow,” said McDonald, who had nine points off the bench. “The guy who was trailing Jamal (TCU’s Nate Butler) was pretty tall and athletic, and I recognized that. He blocked the shot, and I got the shot.”
After TCU trimmed the count to 33-28 early in the second half and had two possessions to make it closer, the Lobos showed their explosiveness with a 12-0 run that spanned just 2½ minutes. But back came the Frogs once again, and after hitting four 3-pointers and getting a free throw and dunk from J.R. Cadot, TCU had cut a 45-28 deficit to 51-45 with nine minutes remaining.
Fenton, who had already scored the Lobos’ last two field goals on great drives, then drilled a fade-away 3-pointer to ignite a 10-2 run and get his team back on track.
The Frogs never made another serious run.
“I think this says a lot about our toughness,” said Williams, who had just one turnover and guarded Thorns most of the game. Thorns had eight points and six assists but five turnovers.
“Coach Alford has been stressing this 13-day (period) of toughness and getting back to being tough. And whatever that means, whatever it leads to, we do need to be a tougher bunch; either mentally or physically, because we have the chemistry and talent to do it. This past week exemplified that. Now we have to hit the road and finish off the days we have left.”
The Lobos visit Air Force on Tuesday and Boise State on Saturday, completing a two-week stretch that Alford said was key after UNM lost back-to-back games to San Diego State and UNLV.