Men’s basketball coach Craig Neal backtracked a bit when he said his team lost a competitive edge in the Jan. 15 home loss to UNLV, a game where his New Mexico squad played itself into an early hole too deep to rally back from.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say they lost it,” Neal said Tuesday night, following back-to-back wins against Fresno State and Boise State. “I just think they didn’t come out with the excitement and really, really pushing and really playing from the start of the game.”
The UNLV game remains the only blemish on UNM’s Mountain West schedule through the first six games. The Lobos found themselves down by 16 points midway through the opening half after surrendering a 20-4 run over six minutes.
The Lobos (15-4, 5-1 MW) made sure that was not an issue in their next two games, holding an 18-point lead at one point in the first half against Fresno State and scoring 12 of the first 16 points against Boise State.
UNM’s Cameron Bairstow attempts to stay open to receive a pass during the game against the UNLV Rebels at the Pit Wednesday, Jan. 15. Bairstow scored 27 points for his 15th double-figure game this season. New Mexico lost 76-73 to the UNLV Rebels.
“There definitely is a better mind-set on the defensive end, understanding that we’re not going to outscore opponents just based on our offensive abilities,” forward Cameron Bairstow said Tuesday.
Neal addressed the slow starts by talking to his guys about it and breaking it down on game tape, he said. He praised his team for opening strong against Boise State, adding the Broncos did not have an answer for the Lobos.
“I have guys that have been winners since they’ve been here, but I wanted them to see that you’ve got to keep pushing and keep pushing, and they’ve done that our last two games,” Neal said. “I’m very proud of them.”
New Mexico, the preseason favorite to win the conference, remains one game behind league leader and No. 7-ranked San Diego State. The Lobos and Nevada hold identical 5-1 records, but the Lobos sit in the second place ahead of the Wolf Pack (10-9) based on overall record.
UNM has yet to play either SDSU or Nevada but will play each team twice before the conference tournament in mid-March. With the new 11-team conference lineup and modified schedule, the Lobos take on every team twice except Fresno State and Air Force.
On Saturday, UNM takes on Colorado State for the second time this season. The Lobos opened conference play against the Rams, capturing an 80-73 victory at The Pit on Jan. 4. Bairstow tallied 29 points and guard Kendall Williams added 22 in that game.
Williams had the best offensive output of his career the last time UNM traveled to Fort Collins, Colo., when he dropped 46 points on CSU. The performance led to a 91-82 Lobo victory and helped cement Williams as the 2012-13 Mountain West player of the year.
“It’s always tough to play there,” Neal said. “We were fortunate enough to win there last year. They play a hard-nosed defense and it’ll be another challenge for us that we’re looking forward to.”
J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano lead Colorado State’s offense with scoring averages of 18.9 and 16.2 points per game, respectively.
As a team the Rams (12-7, 3-3 MW) score 75.8 per game and give up 69 per game.
CSU has played only five games away from Moby Arena, holding an 11-3 home record this season.
Bairstow on Wooden midseason watch list
On Wednesday, Bairstow joined 24 other men’s players on the John R. Wooden Midseason Top 25 watch list. The Los Angeles Athletic Club presents the Wooden Award, named after the legendary UCLA coach, to the nation’s top men’s and women’s players.
Bairstow, UNM’s top scorer at 20.3 points per game, was the only Mountain West player on the Wooden Award’s midseason list. He was not on the award’s preseason watch list, though Williams and UNM center Alex Kirk were. Neither Williams nor Kirk were included on the updated list.
The UNM men’s basketball Twitter account announced Thursday that Bairstow was on Midseason Oscar Robertson Trophy watch list as well.
At Colorado State
Saturday at 2 p.m.