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Kirk not defensive after solid comeback

Darn, I forgot to record this one.

WRIGHT Rick_2012Just kidding – about the darn part. I did in fact forget to record the Root Sports telecast of Saturday’s New Mexico-San Jose State men’s basketball game, but that’s OK. I saw it live and in person, and an instant classic it was not. A gory mismatch, it was.

Still, as most any college basketball game will, the Lobos’ 72-47 rout of the Spartans did furnish a few memorable moments.

Most of the few were provided by 7-foot junior center Alex Kirk, who returned to the lineup after missing the Lobos’ past two games with a lower leg injury.

One might say he returned with a vengeance, since Kirk was criticized on Twitter during his absence by CBS college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb.

“New Mexico can really score,” Gottlieb tweeted, “but they can’t defend ball screens w/Kirk. No real bench (at center) either.”

Gottlieb’s remark was retweeted by many, including Kirk himself.

The former Oklahoma State point guard went on, in later tweets, to say he thought Kirk was overweight and had regressed as a player.

Now, to a guy who once sat out more than a year with a back injury, two games might not seem like much. But, clearly, Gottlieb or no Gottlieb, the former Los Alamos Hilltopper was delighted to be back.

He said as much after the game, but his actions on the court spoke louder than any words.

Just 38 seconds into the game, Kirk tossed in a short baseline jumper. Having struggled with his outside shot recently, he hit an 18-footer a bit later.

At the 15:13 mark of the first half, he hit a layup off a classic pick and roll with point guard Hugh Greenwood. Just before halftime, he took another feed from Greenwood and slammed home a dunk.

Early in the second half, Kirk had another dunk off another Greenwood feed. A bit later, he hit a turnaround jumper on the baseline.

Kirk finished with 13 points, four rebounds and a blocked shot in 19 minutes. Lobos coach Craig Neal said Kirk was not to play more than 20 minutes in his return.

“(Kirk) looked really, really, I would say, spry for a 7-footer,” Neal said. “His leg’s better. He has no issues. It was a great decision by our trainers and our doctors to convince me not to play him (at Colorado State and Utah State).”

The Lobos (17-4 overall, 8-1 halfway through their Mountain West Conference schedule) won those games on the road without Kirk, a fact that might have prompted Gottlieb’s remark.

Or perhaps it was one or more of the Lobos’ previous few games, during which, Kirk said, the leg was bothering him.

“It got better at times throughout the season, and other times it was bad,” he said. “Finally, it was, ‘All right, we need to figure out what this is before we really get into the meat of the schedule.’ ”

Despite Kirk’s fine offensive game, it seems fair to say he didn’t do anything defensively against San Jose State to debunk the criticism. He really didn’t have to, since the hapless Spartans (6-16, 0-10) took more 3-pointers (28) than shots inside the arc (16).

As for Gottlieb’s shots, Kirk grinned, laughed and said it’s a team sport at both ends of the court.

“What did we give up, 47 points? Pretty awful,” he said. “People are gonna say what they want, and I guess (Gottlieb’s) one of the best analysts in the country, so we’ll just have to take that in stride and watch tape and pound fact, and we’ll see where we can get better.”

As good as the Lobos have been in winning nine of their last 10 games, they’ll have to get better if they expect the same kind of success in the second half of their Mountain West schedule. They’ve got road games at Boise State and at UNLV, a team that beat them in the Pit on Jan. 15.

And they’ve got two games against San Diego State, the fifth-ranked team in the country.

A healthy Kirk can only help on the journey ahead – at both ends of the court.