The No. 25 New Mexico Lobos, after trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, got double-doubles from guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk to go with a game-high 22 points from Cameron Bairstow to beat Nevada 72-58.
The win keeps UNM up to pace with No. 13 San Diego State for first place in the Mountain West Conference standings.
“Started a little slow,” UNM coach Craig Neal said. “I was a little worried about it … (but) I thought they understood the importance of this game.”
After combining for 53 points in a Feb. 15 win over Nevada in Albuquerque, Bairstow and Kirk had just one basket and four points in the first 12½ minutes on Sunday as the Wolf Pack opened a 21-13 lead. That lead extended to 31-17 with 4:28 remaining after Nevada star senior Deonte Burton connected on two free throws.
“They did a better job trapping the post and they were doing it a bit differently than other teams,” Bairstow said. “They were trapping from the passer.”
And when they trapped, the Lobo big men passed outside to Lobo guards who couldn’t get much going early. The Lobos were 1-of-9 in the first half from 3-point range, including 0-for-4 from Hugh Greenwood. They also committed turnovers on the first two possessions of the game.
But that didn’t last and once UNM’s guards started knocking down shots — Greenwood and Cullen Neal each hit two treys in the second half — the inside opened for the Lobo big men.
“We just have to pick your poison really,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “You’re either going to play 1-on-1 in the post, maybe get in foul trouble, or you’re going to force it out and have someone else beat you.”
While UNM’s frontcourt still dominated (Bairstow had 22 points and two blocks while Kirk added 10 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots), Sunday it was about the guard play, especially in the second half.
Greenwood (six points, five assists) and Williams (11 points, 10 assists), UNM’s starting backcourt, combined for 15 assists and zero turnovers in the game. Reserve guards Cullen Neal and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas combined for 15 points and hit three 3-pointers off the bench, at one point combining for 12 of 14 UNM points in a row during a key second half rally.
“I thought we got a great lift from Pancake off the bench and I thought Cullen hit some big shots,” Craig Neal said. “He hit some timely shots to get us going. … I always brag about my bigs because everybody always wants to talk about my bigs, but I’ll take my guards against anybody.”
UNM closed the first half on a 10-0 run. Later, with the game tied 49-49 with 9:04 remaining, Cullen Neal scored the next five points and a Greenwood 3-pointer made it 57-49 with 6:45 left.
The Lobos never looked back.
UNM’s bench outscored Nevada’s 17-4 and the Lobos assisted on 21 of their 27 made field goals. UNM shot 57.1 percent in the second half (16-of-28) and hit on 49.1 percent for the game while also making 12-of-14 from the free throw line (85.7 percent). Nevada, the 11th-consecutive team UNM held under its season scoring average, shot just 34.9 percent in the game (22-of-63) and 57.1 percent from the free throw line (8-of-14).
The Wolf Pack shot just 37.2 percent from inside the arc and UNM’s defense now ranks third in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, holding teams to under 41 percent from inside the 3-point line.
Burton and Huff each scored 15 for Nevada and forward A.J. West added 10.
NEW RECORD: With his 10 assists, Williams has 591 for his career and 273 in MWC games, both new records for the league in its 15th season. Williams passed UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield (2008-12) for both assist records (582 career, 264 in MW games).
Assist records, Williams admitted, weren’t exactly what he envisioned when he came to UNM four years ago after a high school career of, as he put it, “taking a lot of bad shots.”
“Not the assists,” Williams said with a huge smile. “… It means that not only are you creating for yourself, but obviously you’re creating for other people. I think this program has really brought that best quality out for me.”