For the first time in 51 games, redshirt junior center Alex Kirk was not in his usual starting position.
Instead, the men’s basketball starting center was sitting on the New Mexico bench in street clothes, wearing a protective boot over his injured left leg.
As for Kirk’s fellow Lobos, they struggled in the first half and trailed in the final two minutes, but came away with a 68-66 win over Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colo. on Saturday.
“Any time you’re missing ten rebounds a game, it’s going to take a little bit of an adjustment,” head coach Craig Neal said in reference to the absence of Kirk, who is officially listed as day-to-day. “I thought our guys really showed a mindset that we had all along, it’s just taken us a while to develop because we’re a young team.”
With the win, the Lobos (15-4, 6-1 Mountain West) improve to 4-0 on the road in conference play for the first time since 1984, when they were part of the Western Athletic Conference.
They might not have reached that feat if not for a couple of key shots by senior guard Kendall Williams and junior guard Hugh Greenwood down the stretch.
After CSU forward Gerson Santo hit one of two free throws for a 63-60 lead, Williams answered with a 3-pointer to tie the game at 63 with 2:22 left in the game.
The Rams responded with a free throw by Daniel Bejarano, but Greenwood came back with the game-winning trey and a 66-64 lead.
Bejarano did have a chance to send the game to overtime, but his last-second jumper missed, giving the Lobos a 68-66 victory.
“It was huge — absolutely huge,” Williams said. “We don’t take any road game for granted, especially games where we know that it’s tough to come in here and win.”
With Kirk gone and with freshman center Obij Aget making his first collegiate start, Neal decided to go with a four-guard set in the first half to create more space for the offense.
“They (CSU) went small and I was preparing our team for that, so I went small,” Neal said.
Williams went 7 of 15 for a game-high 23 points with five assists and five turnovers. He struggled from the free throw line, sinking just 5 of 10 attempts. Last season at CSU, Williams had one of the best games of his career by recording 46 points.
“I’m hard on myself; it’s nice to have a group around me that stays confident in me,” Williams said. “I was telling my family that I was kicking things because I was so upset. I put too much pressure on myself after what happened last year.”
UNM was able to contain CSU throughout most of the game. The Rams shot just 32.1 percent from the field (18 of 56) and their most dependable scorer, forward J.J. Avila, who averaged 18.1 points heading into the game, scored just eight points, hitting just 1 of 12 shots and adding eight rebounds.
“We’ve always had this, it’s just you got missing pieces with Tony (Snell) gone and Alex was gone this game,” Neal said. “It’s a situation that we’ve come together by communicating. I think our tough mindset has been our biggest thing.”
The Lobos nailed 46.9 percent (23 of 49) of their field attempts to improve to 12-0 when outshooting their opponents.
Senior forward Cameron Bairstow scored 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting along with six boards.
The Rams had three double-digit scorers with guard Daniel Bejarano at a team-high 21 points, guard Jon Octeus at 12 points on 3 of 12 shooting and guard Jon De Ciman at 14 points.