CHARLESTON, S.C. – Craig Neal knew his team was better than the Davidson Wildcats.
And while he suspected it would respond well Sunday to the gut-punch loss to Massachusetts on Thursday, there were still some butterflies before the game.
“I always thought they would bounce back, but until they really do, you don’t know,” Neal said Sunday afternoon.
Now he knows for sure.
Before a turnout listed at 1,137, the No. 19 New Mexico Lobos answered the bell Sunday with a 79-58 knockout punch of Davidson to take third place in the Charleston Classic in front of 1,137 fans in TD Arena.
The Lobos (4-1) jumped on the Wildcats early and often in the paint, with junior center Alex Kirk scoring 12 of the team’s first 18 points. The 7-footer from Los Alamos ended up with 16 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots, posting his fifth double-double in five games this season.
Davidson (1-5) played without leading scorer De’Mon Brooks due to a groin injury.
Lobo Cameron Bairstow again led the team in scoring with 18 points (he was 10-of-11 from the free throw line) to go along with seven rebounds and five assists.
“I thought they played awesome the whole tournament,” Neal said of his two big men, who combined to average 37 points, 17.7 rebounds and 5.3 blocked shots in three games of the Charleston Classic.
Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who coached Alex Kirk this summer for Team USA’s World University Games and watched Cameron Bairstow lead Australia to a win over Team USA in that tournament in Russia, agreed that the Lobos’ big men were simply too much for his team.
But he had a different take on who might have been the biggest difference maker.
“The guy that maybe broke our back was Cullen Neal,” McKillop said of the Lobo freshman guard and coach’s son, who just a handful of games into this college career has already received heat from some fans who thought he was playing more minutes than his so-so statistics warranted.
“He came off the bench and hit a couple of timely and big 3s. Anytime we’d get in maybe a possession or two of cutting it to single digits, he made a big 3. I hope that Craig enjoys coaching Cullen because it looks like he is going to do wonderful things for him.”
In 14 minutes of playing time, Cullen Neal scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 on 3-pointers to go along with two rebounds and two turnovers. UNM had a plus-10 scoring differential when he was on the court.
His minutes Sunday came often alongside starter Hugh Greenwood. In recent games, Greenwood had early foul trouble leading to Cullen Neal playing minutes in place of Greenwood rather than with him.
Said Craig Neal on Cullen Neal’s spark off the bench, “He played OK. I mean, he had a nice game.”
Greenwood, who did not commit a foul in the first half Sunday, finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Senior Kendall Williams scored 12 points and had two assists.
It is never the four returning starters of Kirk, Bairstow, Williams and Greenwood that Craig Neal is worried about.
“I know what I’m going to get out of my four guys (returning starters),” Craig Neal said. “I just know that I’m going to get effort, I’m going to get heart, I know they care. And I think all our kids on our team care. They just haven’t been put into the fire yet.”
Friday’s loss to the Minutemen, one that could cost the Lobos their Top 25 national ranking when The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls are updated today, was that trial by fire for many of the Lobos newcomers, which include five new players and two sophomores playing significantly more minutes than a season ago.
Craig Neal said he was maybe most satisfied Sunday with his team improving defensively. While the absence of Brooks made it more difficult on Davidson to try to run any offense in the paint, the Lobos made it even harder on the Wildcats by consistently rotating and playing better help defense than in Friday’s loss to UMass.
“I really thought they bounced back and did a really nice job from a defensive standpoint,” Craig Neal said. “Playing with urgency and really trying to guard even though we did give up eight 3-pointers, and some open ones. But I thought we wanted to make them drivers and finish at the rim over our big guys.”
Davidson got 17 points from guard Brian Sullivan, but it took him 17 shots, including 4-of-11 3-pointers, to get there.
The Lobos also out-rebounded Davidson 48-28 and held the Wildcats to 35.6 percent shooting, including 8-of-29 3-point shooting (27.6 percent).
On the other end of the court, the Lobos showed the stroke from the free throw line they thought they’d have this season, hitting 16 of 19 free throws (84.2 percent).