They may scrap, claw and fight with the best of them, but if someone not named Hugh Greenwood or Cullen Neal doesn’t start scoring, these Lobos are in for a long season.
When the latter went down with a severe ankle injury early in the second half of Thursday’s opening-round game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, the Boston College Eagles were able to hold off a game, but offensively out-of-sync University of New Mexico 69-65.
INJURY UPDATE: Click here to read a Friday morning update on Cullen Neal’s injury and what it means for the Lobos moving forward
The loss sends the Lobos (2-1) to the losers’ bracket of the three-game tournament, where UNM will play George Mason today at 5 p.m.
“I really liked our guys’ effort,” UNM coach Craig Neal said. “We played without our leading scorer most of the second half, which is not an excuse. … My guys battled and had their chances, we just made some little mistakes that we have to correct.”
Greenwood, the Lobos’ fourth-year starter, scored a career-high 24 points to go along with three assists and three steals. He also expended plenty of energy on the defensive end trying to will along his young, inexperienced teammates in the second half, especially after his backcourt running mate went out. Cullen Neal fell on the foot of Eagles guard Olivier Hanlan with 17:11 left in the game. Neal’s left ankle was bent at what appeared on ESPN2’s broadcast to be at an almost 90-degree angle.
Cullen Neal, who averaged 24.5 points entering the game, was helped off the court and did not return to the game.
“I don’t think it’s very good,” Craig Neal said of his son’s injury. “I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think he’ll play the rest of this tournament. We just have to get it X-rayed and hope it’s not broken.”
UPDATE (Friday morning, 6:30 a.m.): Craig Neal has told the Journal in a text message that Cullen Neal “will be out for awhile” but that there was not a major fracture detected in Cullen Neal’s left ankle in an X-ray taken after Thursday’s game. There is still a “concern for a possible hairline fracture or possible ligament damage” but they won’t know the specific extent of the injury until an MRI is conducted when the team returns to Albuquerque early next week.
With Cullen Neal (two points, three assists, three turnovers) out and Greenwood back to the primary point guard role instead of a catch-and-shoot, off the ball scorer that allowed him to score 11 points in the game’s first eight minutes, the Lobos offense simply wasn’t very good, especially when it wasn’t scoring in transition or at the free-throw line.
UNM finished with 10 assists on 21 field goals and 18 turnovers.
Greenwood’s effort helped the Lobos cut what was as much as a 13-point second-half deficit down to four on several occasions, but the Lobos were never able to get over that margin.
“We couldn’t get out of the hole, and they hit a lot of big 3s in the first half,” said coach Neal. “Once they got up 10, we kept battling, kept battling, kept battling. You use a lot of effort coming back. Then we just couldn’t get that one key play.”
Down the stretch, Hanlan, the ACC’s leading returning scorer, made sure he kept the Lobos at arm’s length. He scored 13 of his team-high 20 points in the final 12:07, including a pair of late drives to the basket when the Lobos’ zone broke down.
“We had two or three possessions late where it was a late clock and we switched it (on an Eagles ball screen at the top of the key) and then we just let him drive it and we didn’t get any help to make him make the next pass,” coach Neal said. “If we would have made Hanlan make the next pass, then you don’t know what’s going to happen because the time was running down. But he made some big plays.”
BC guard Aaron Brown (16) and Patrick Heckmann (13) were the Eagles’ (2-1) two other scorers in double figures.
Greenwood was UNM’s only double-figure scorer, with Devon Williams and J.J. N’Ganga each chipping in nine.
“Our guys will keep battling and it will give somebody another opportunity,” Craig Neal said of moving forward with Cullen Neal likely out at least for the short term. “It will give somebody a chance to play a little bit more. I’m proud of my kids’ effort.”
LAST TIME: The last time UNM lost the opener of a November tournament was a 79-76 overtime loss to Santa Clara in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., in 2011. That dropped the Lobos to 2-2 as they had already lost to New Mexico State in the Pit.
UNM improved throughout that season and won the Mountain West’s regular season (co-champions with San Diego State) and tournament titles by March.