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UNM basketball: Newcomers yet to catch up for Lobos

Cleveland Thomas (1) and the Lobos host San Diego today. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cleveland Thomas (1) and the Lobos host San Diego today. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

It just wasn’t Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas’ game.

At least that’s what the first-year starter for New Mexico thought.

When the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard missed seven of his first nine shots in the team’s Nov. 21 game against Alabama-Birmingham, including all four from 3-point range, he told senior Kendall Williams to stop passing to him.

That wasn’t an option for Williams or for the Lobos (4-1). Their lofty expectations for March have a lot to do with four starters returning but won’t be realized until several new players get acclimated with each other and returning lettermen take on larger roles in nonconference play.

“When Kendall kept coming to me but I kept missing shots, I was like, ‘You don’t have to come to me no more. My jumper’s off,’ ” Thomas said of the UAB game. “… He said, ‘Keep shooting.’ ”

It’s a good thing he did.

Trailing 69-63 with 43 seconds remaining in the game, Thomas hit an open 3-pointer off a Williams assist to keep UNM alive and eventually force overtime. Then, with the game tied 92-92 with 41 seconds remaining in the second overtime, again off a Williams assist, Thomas knocked down another 3-pointer to give the Lobos the lead for good in a thrilling 97-94 double overtime victory.

“When he came to me again that last time and I knocked it down, my confidence went sky high for him to have that trust in me,” Thomas said.

Such victories – the confidence boost for Thomas every bit as much as the double overtime win itself – are a big part of what the Lobos set out to accomplish in the first six games of their nonconference schedule, which includes today’s showdown in the Pit with a dangerous 7-1 San Diego Toreros team.

After today’s game, the Lobos face arguably as tough a five-game stretch as the program ever had. Starting with Wednesday’s in-state rivalry game at New Mexico State, the Lobos play five consecutive games against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago: at NMSU on Wednesday; vs. Cincinnati on Dec. 7; vs. Kansas in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 14; vs. NMSU on Dec. 17; and vs. Marquette in Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

The problem is, outside of returning starters of Williams, Hugh Greenwood, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, head coach Craig Neal isn’t sure the rest of the roster is where he had hoped.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go,” Neal said. “I thought some of our guys would be further along that we brought in and they’re not. They’re not caught up with our system yet. They’re not caught up with our defensive schemes yet. And I think that’s hindered them on playing.

“I think our defense is getting better, but offensively I think we’re good. I think we’re hard to guard. I think we’re ahead of pace offensively, behind pace defensively. Usually it’s the other way around.”

The reason the defense is behind, the coach says, is oftentimes due to one of the newer players not yet feeling confident with their decision-making or sometimes due to a yet-to-be solidified trust between the returning starters and new players.

“If we do a lot of the same things that we did last year, I think we can be a real good basketball team moving forward,” Bairstow said. “But that’s just going to be up to us and how we come together as a team.”

TURQUOISE TIME: UNM will wear turquoise jerseys in conjunction with a partnership with the Nike N7 campaign to raise awareness of several issues related to American Indian Heritage Month.

“We have a unique situation here in the sense that we have an unbelievable state, an unbelievable backing, and we have a platform to bring awareness to certain things that don’t always get it,” Neal said.

The Lobos will auction off the jerseys during the game and donate proceeds to UNM’s American Indian Student Services and to the Notah Begay III Foundation.

Begay will be recognized at halftime and the Laguna-Acoma High School Marine Corps Junior ROTC will present the colors prior to the singing of the pregame national anthem, which will be performed in Navajo by UNM student Stacie Barney.

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