Demetrius Walker greeted his former New Mexico teammates with hugs before Monday’s game at The Pit. Before the opening tipoff, Walker and Lobo guard Kendall Williams exchanges some light trash talking and grins.
The crowd gave Walker, a UNM graduate playing at Grand Canyon University, a roar of applause as the public address announcer said Walker’s name. On his first trip to the foul line, the fans booed Walker like he was simply another opponent.
UNM spoiled Walker’s return to Albuquerque with an 80-68 victory in the Lobos’ nonconference finale. Walker played at New Mexico from 2011-13 after a redshirt year. He arrived to New Mexico in 2010 and redshirted his first year after transferring from Arizona.
Walker, who scored seven points against his former team, is pursuing a master’s degree in management at GCU in Phoenix.
“Of course I was a little bit nervous,” he said. “You have a little bit of anxiety for the game. I was really anxious to get out there and play, but once that ball went into the air I locked into GCU basketball and tried to do what was best for my team.”
Since Walker had previous experience playing at The Pit, he said he told his teammates to expect a more physical game than they normally see.
The referees, Walker said, tend to allow bumps that don’t result in fouls. The Antelopes, however, did receive 23 fouls to UNM’s 13, and picked up their 10th foul of the second half midway through.
Walker wouldn’t reveal what was said between himself and Williams.
“I’m just going to keep that between me and Kendall,” he said with a laugh. “That’s my boy. I love him to death.”
When a reporter asked Williams if he could describe a PG version of the conversation, he said the exchange was PG in nature. That’s just part of the gamesmanship, he said, mentioning how fun it was to play against Walker.
“We didn’t get too crazy with it,” Williams said. “We’re good friends. We tried to block out all the extra stuff and he didn’t talk too much trash. He did just to poke at us, but he’s a good guy and we had fun with it.”
UNM head coach Craig Neal said he did not get an opportunity to talk with Walker before the game but expressed his pride in Walker graduating from UNM last spring semester.
“We gave him a second chance to go play for Grand Canyon and have a good season there,” Neal said. “I’m sure it was hard for him to come back here. Once you walk down that tunnel in a Lobo jersey, it is hard to come back and play here. I just wish him continued success.”
Antelope forward Daniel Alexander netted a game-high 18 points. Forward Killian Larson and guard Jeff Lowery joined Alexander in double-digit scoring with 10 points apiece.
The Lobos (9-3) countered with four players in double figures, led by Cullen Neal’s 18 points. The freshman guard in his second start for the injured Hugh Greenwood connected on three 3-pointers and made seven assists. Neal has scored 42 points in the last two games against Marquette and GCU.
Center Alex Kirk increased his season double-double total to eight after recording 14 points and 11 rebounds. Forward Cameron Bairstow and Williams each had 14 points as well, and Williams provided a game-high eight assists.
All five New Mexico scorers provided points before the first media timeout at 4:11 mark. Guard Deshawn Delaney, starting for Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas, finished with seven points. Thomas has seen limited time on the floor after breaking his nose in practice, playing a mask to protect his face.
UNM led throughout from start to finish, the third time this season, after jumping out to a 15-3 advantage. Carrying a 46-26 halftime lead, the Lobos led Grand Canyon (5-6) by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Antelopes, however, outscored UNM 26-11 over the last 10 minutes.
“The second half of the game was a different story,” Craig Neal said. “I didn’t want to think about it, but I think (in the past) we have lost three or four games that we’ve played right before Christmas. I think the holidays came into effect, but I was really proud of our guys for finishing the job tonight.”
UNM shot 25 of 48 from the field (52.1 percent), 6 of 12 from 3-point range (50 percent) and 24 of 32 percent from free throw line (75 percent). Grand Canyon was 25 of 58 from the field (43.1 percent), 10 of 23 percent from the arc (43.5 percent) and 8 of 14 from the foul stripe (57.1 percent).
“New Mexico has a great team,” Walker said. “They always have a good team, even when I played here. Tonight was a great game.”