LOGAN, Utah — These Lobos are road warriors.
Playing their second consecutive game without 7-foot center Alex Kirk, the University of New Mexico got 22 points from Cameron Bairstow, hit eight 3-pointers and improved to 5-0 on the road in Mountain West play with a relatively comfortable 78-65 win over Utah State at the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum.
“It’s a credit to our guys,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said of his team’s impressive road start to the season. “We’re playing without the best center in the league — a guy that gives you 14 and 10 and our guys have just really stayed focused. We’re getting great bench play. The guys are playing at a high level.”
It is the first time UNM (16-4, 7-1 MWC) has started 5-0 on the road in the Mountain West and ties the best conference road start ever in the program, matching the 5-0 start of the 1978 Lobos playing in the Western Athletic Conference. The win also keeps the Lobos in sole possession of second place, a half game behind San Diego State as well as guaranteeing UNM will have back-to-back winning records on the road in league play (the Lobos were the only MWC team with a winning road record in league games in 2013).
“We’re going to the road warrior kind of theme,” senior guard Kendall Williams said after his 16 point, three assists, three steal game. “We’re a great group, chemistry wise. I think that helps us on the road when we come into environments like this.”
The truth is, the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Tuesday night was a far cry from the raucous environment it was Saturday night when the Aggies took No. 5 San Diego State (then ranked No. 7) to overtime with more than 10,127 in attendance. On Tuesday, the Lobos took the generously announced crowd of 9,751 out of the game early with a double-digit lead in the first half. The Hurd, the USU student section, was still very involved, but there wasn’t much help from the rest of the arena.
“It’s obvious that they’re a really good basketball team,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. “They pretty much dominated both halves. They’re hard to guard and have a couple premiere players. They didn’t even have their normal starter at the five. I just thought they were really good. We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole in the first half. We didn’t guard ball screens very well. New Mexico is a borderline Top 25 team right now.”
The Lobos had four players score in double figures with Cullen Neal (13) and Deshawn Delaney (12) joining Bairstow and Williams. But equally as valuable to the Lobos’ fortunes was the five points and 10 rebounds from point guard Hugh Greenwood and seven points and four rebounds from 7-foot-1 freshman Obij Aget, getting his second start in place of Kirk.
Greenwood and Aget each grabbed three of UNM’s 14 offensive rebounds leading to 15 second chance points.
“He played like a man,” Williams said of Aget. “He played like an absolute monster. … Big O told me, he said ‘I was nervous the first game (starting in place of Kirk Saturday at Colorado State).’ It’s natural, but he had a great opponent that he was going up against and I think that motivated him to come out here tonight and do what he did.”
Aget guarded Utah State’s 6-10 center Jarred Shaw much of the 23 minutes he was in the game.
Kirk, still nursing his lower left leg injury, left the Lobos again without their anchor on defense and without one half of their potent high/low offensive scheme. It also allowed Utah State (12-8, 2-6) to put its best post defender on Bairstow much of the game.
“They can match up differently,” Bairstow said of how teams play him with Kirk out. “You saw Shaw guarded me the entire game, basically. … He (Kirk) draws a lot of attention away from me.”
Bairstow worked as hard Tuesday for his 22 points. Eight of Bairstow’s points came from the free throw line and he also grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 38 minutes.
While the Lobos coasted to the win down the stretch, there was some drama midway through the second half.
Utah State cut the lead to 54-52 on a Preston Medlin 3-pointer with 9:42 remaining. Making matters worse was the sight of Williams being helped off the court with a cramp in his right leg.
Fortunately for UNM, he returned a few minutes later. But in his absence the Lobos actually extended the lead to 68-57 on a Greenwood putback that followed a 5-0 scoring run from Aget.
Williams used a personal 7-0 scoring run in the first half to turn an early four-point deficit into a 14-11 lead. Utah State clawed back for a brief advantage at 21-20 on a Preston Medlin 3-pointer with 9:38 remaining in the half, but it would be their final lead of the game.
The Lobos scored their next 15 points on five 3-pointers (they had six in the first half, the most for a first half this season.). Back-to-back Cullen Neal 3-pointers pushed the Lobos’ lead to 35-25 with 5:51 remaining in the half.
UNM took a 41-33 lead into halftime with Bairstow’s 10 points leading all scorers.
Cullen Neal’s 13 points off the bench marked the seventh double figure scoring game for the freshman this season.
Utah State was led in the game by 15 points and seven rebounds from forward Jarred Shaw.
KIRK UPDATE: For the second game in a row, Kirk watched his teammates from the bench in street clothes and a walking boot on his left foot to protect a shin injury. The team says it isn’t a stress fracture, but something they don’t want him putting weight on for the time being.
“He’ll get re-evaluated when we get back,” Craig Neal said Tuesday night. “It’s day-to-day in the sense that there’s no structural damage. There’s no break. It’s on his shin. My job as his coach is to make sure he’s healthy.”
Kirk has worn the boot for the past week since the Boise State win in the Pit and has been riding a stationary bike, lifting weights and working out in swimming pools, but has been avoiding running and any high impact-type activities on the foot.
HOME SWEET HOME: Tuesday’s game in Logan, Utah, ends a busy month of travel for the Lobos, who had five Mountain West road games in a 21-day span. No other league team had five road games in January.
MYLES: Lobo freshman Tim Myles stayed home from the Lobos’ road trip to Colorado State (Saturday) and Utah State (Tuesday) because he was sick. He is expected to rejoin the team later this week.
AUSSIES IN THE PIT: While Bairstow and Greenwood teamed up Tuesday night for the Lobos against Utah State, their younger sisters will play against each other tonight in the Pit — Stephanie Bairstow, a sophomore forward for Utah State, and Josie Greenwood, a freshman forward for UNM. The Lobo men’s basketball team is scheduled to return to Albuquerque in time for the brothers to watch the game.
“We’ll sit together,” Cameron Bairstow said of himself and Hugh Greenwood. “Probably talk a little smack, but it’ll be an interesting experience.”
Cameron Bairstow has never seen his sister play a college game.
“I really haven’t watched a single college game yet,” the big brother said. “They aren’t on TV and besides that this is my first time out in Logan, Utah. It’ll be a great experience for me to be able to watch her play.”
During Tuesday’s game in Logan, Utah, Cameron Bairstow was showered with chants from The Hurd student section of “Your sister’s hotter! Your sister’s hotter!”
He didn’t seem to know how to respond to those chants.
NEW MEXICO 78, UTAH ST. 65
NEW MEXICO (16-4)
Greenwood 2-9 1-1 6, K. Williams 5-9 5-7 16, Aget 3-6 1-1 7, Delaney 5-9 0-0 12, Bairstow 7-13 8-9 22, Thomas 1-2 0-0 3, D. Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Neal 4-8 1-1 12, Lindsay 0-0 0-0 0, Banyard 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 27-59 16-19 78.
UTAH ST. (12-8)
Shaw 6-16 3-3 15, Medlin 5-8 0-0 13, Moore 2-6 2-2 7, Roland 1-5 0-2 3, Butterfield 3-7 2-2 8, Noma’aea 1-1 0-0 3, Berger 2-4 0-0 4, K. Davis 3-5 4-4 10, McGlaston 0-1 0-0 0, Stone 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 23-54 13-15 65.
Halftime—New Mexico 41-33. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 8-19 (Neal 3-6, Delaney 2-3, K. Williams 1-2, Thomas 1-2, Greenwood 1-5, Banyard 0-1), Utah St. 6-12 (Medlin 3-5, Noma’aea 1-1, Moore 1-1, Roland 1-3, Berger 0-1, Butterfield 0-1). Fouled Out—Aget. Rebounds—New Mexico 36 (Greenwood 10), Utah St. 30 (Butterfield, Shaw 7). Assists—New Mexico 11 (Greenwood 4), Utah St. 18 (Medlin 9). Total Fouls—New Mexico 16, Utah St. 20. A—9,751.