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Kuiper steps up for the Lobos

Sometimes, it’s that simple.

Asked Saturday night if he could explain the recent stepped up production of sophomore guard Dane Kuiper, UNM Lobos coach Craig Neal had a rather matter of fact answer.

“The coach is playing him,” Neal said.

And, as simple as it sounds, the reality is as the playing opportunity for the 6-foot-7 guard from Arizona has increased in the past two games with the Lobos, so has his production. That was shown with 14 points in Saturday’s win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff following a career-high 15-point game last week at New Mexico State.

Through UNM’s first nine games (Kuiper did not play in three due to illness), Kuiper averaged 2.8 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals and he had hit 2-of-6 3-pointers while playing 10 minutes a game.

His past two games have seen his minutes jump to an average of 24. The result is 14.5 points per game, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and he’s 6-of-11 on 3’s in that span.

“I think it’s the team and coach putting a lot of confidence in me and me coming out a lot more focused,” is how Kuiper tried explaining his recent uptick in production. “A couple games before, I came out really tentative. I’m really starting to come into my own.”

Neal, whose first prep commitment as head coach was Kuiper during the 2013-14 season when he was playing at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz., has always spoken highly of the potential of Kuiper. But, until recently, the results on the court hadn’t matched up.

“He’s a fierce competitor but he was just kind of biding his time,” said Neal. “I just told him, I said, ‘You’ve got to compete because you’ve got a chance to play and be really, really good.’ He’s always been a great competitor, but he just kind of took a back seat to everything that was going on.”

Kuiper, who has started two games this season — Saturday as a sign of possible things to come and Nov. 30 in place of an injured Sam Logwood — says starting isn’t a concern of his. But he now feels confident in what he needs to do to be a regular part of the rotation. And if he and his teammates continue on that path, he likes the Lobos’ chances as league play approaches.

“It’s just the little things that I’ve done, play defense,” Kuiper said. “… I think it’s the same (with the whole) team, just a different focus. We’re focusing on defense (now) and making each other better.”

INJURY UPDATE: UNM freshman Damien Jefferson (5.3 points per game, 2.2 rebounds in 10 games played) did not dress for Saturday’s game after spraining his right ankle Thursday in practice. Neal said he isn’t sure whether the 6-5 guard will be able to play in Tuesday’s game at Arizona.

STAR POWER: Actor Benicio del Toro, a close friend of Neal’s and big time basketball fan, was at the game supporting Neal and the Lobos.

He’s attended Lobo practices in the past, has frequently had dinner with Neal when visiting New Mexico and was even interviewed on ESPN in 2014 while wearing a Lobos hat when UNM played during the 2014 Puerto Rico Shootout tournament (del Toro is from Puerto Rico).

“He’s here for awhile (in New Mexico),” said Neal of del Toro, who also attended Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl. “He’s a dear friend of mine. We’ll go have dinner tonight. He’s in doing a movie. He’s been at practice. He’s around. He’ll be at practice a lot. He loves basketball. He came to the states to play basketball.”

THAT DEFENSE: Yes, the opponent wasn’t exactly one that has lit up the scoreboard this season, but there is no denying just how statistically impressive the Lobos were on the defensive end Saturday night in the Pit.

UNM held Arkansas-Pine Bluff to 0.566 points per possession in the game, easily the lowest for an opponent in the Neal era. It was also the best since the program held Weber State to 0.561 points per possession on Dec. 23, 2007, in the first season of Steve Alford’s tenure (no other Alford team held an opponent under 0.6 point per possession).

ROOT OUT: The broadcast crew for ROOT Sports couldn’t get a flight out of Denver on Saturday morning so they did not televise the game as scheduled. It was streamed online on the Mountain West’s web site using the audio feed from 770 KKOB-AM.

SAM’S STEALS: Sam Logwood tied a career high in steals (four) on Saturday night. He also had four in a loss at San Diego State last year.

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