What a difference seven days and a couple of wins can make.
A week ago, after a home loss to instate rival New Mexico State, Lobo Nation was ready to write the season off as a disappointment. The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team had three players who could score and pretty much nothing else.
Monday night, after a comfortable 80-68 win over visiting Grand Canyon University, coach Craig Neal admitted he was relieved. UNM got contributions from up and down the lineup and heads into a 12-day break before Mountain West Conference play begins Jan. 4.
“It feels good that we’re finally making some shots,” Neal said of the Lobos getting 37 points from outside their usual Big Three scorers of Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams.
“I think our guys are really gelling, trusting their teammates and making the extra pass,” the coach said. “I’ve said it the last two games, the only way you’re going to get back to your winning ways is if you play together and go back to sharing the ball.”
The Lobos (9-3) had 20 assists on 25 made baskets. They were led in scoring for the second game by freshman guard Cullen Neal, who had 18 points, seven assists and hit three 3-pointers. In his last two games, Cullen Neal has averaged 21.0 points, 4.5 assists, 2.5 turnovers, hit nine 3-pointers and shot 59.1 percent from the field.
Cullen Neal has started the past three games in place of Hugh Greenwood (injured right wrist), who will return to the starting lineup against Colorado State. But his emergence isn’t the only reason the Lobos are feeling much better about themselves.
Junior guard Deshawn Delaney has also provided a much needed spark. He has started the past two games, averaging 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds a game.
“That’s going to be the key to the rest of the year,” said Kirk of the supporting cast stepping up its game. “I think teams are either going to key on one of us (Big Three) or key on two of us. If we keep playing like this … they’re not going to be able to trap me and Cam. If we can start opening that up, then we can really go to work down low.”
And while Kirk said “overall I’ve been playing pretty terrible,” in recent games, his defensive effort against Marquette on Saturday was arguably his best effort of the season. He posted his eighth double-double of the season on Monday with 14 points and 11 rebounds to go along with three blocked shots and a steal. Bairstow added 14 points and two blocks and Williams scored 15 points and dished out eight assists.
“I always like when we share the ball,” Williams said. “This team is built on unselfishness and a lot of talent so I like when we’re able to play like this.”
GCU (5-6) starting guard Demetrius Walker, the former Lobo who transferred this summer after being dismissed from the team last spring, received a loud ovation from the 15,322 fans in the Pit during player introductions. He finished with seven points, six rebounds and four assists.
GCU got 18 points and four 3-pointers from Daniel Alexander and 13 points from Blake Davis. GCU outscored UNM 16-8 in the final 3:46. But the outcome was never really in doubt as UNM led by as many as 27 with under 10 minutes to play.
SNAKE: As usual, Lobos superfan Mark Tichenor, more commonly known around the Pit as “Snake,” welcomed the opposing team to the arena with heckling as they got off the bus on Monday night. But since GCU had Walker on their roster, things were a bit different.
“I love D so I gave him a big hug and then I gave him hell,” Tichenor said. “… And then I told (GCU coach and former NBA star) Dan Majerle he better suit up if he wanted his team to have a chance.”
Walker laughed when asked about “Snake.”
“‘Snake’s’ always a character,” Walker said. “I always love him no matter what team I’m playing for.”
EDWARDS ILL: Craig Neal said sophomore guard Arthur Edwards was “under the weather” on Monday night and probably shouldn’t have played. Edwards scored one point in nine minutes.