UNM center Alex Kirk, back on the floor after sitting out two games with a leg injury, returned to take the opening tipoff Saturday night against San Jose State. Rather than tipping it to teammate guard Hugh Greenwood, Kirk sent the ball past the end line and out of bounds.
A bit overzealous in his return, perhaps?
“I’m not sure what happened,” Kirk said. “Sorry, Hughie — I thought he was going to hit it.”
The awkward tip aside, the junior center made a strong return at The Pit. He played only 19 minutes but scored 13 points in UNM’s 72-47 win over the Spartans, a team that has yet to beat a Mountain West Conference opponent.
Kirk netted the game’s first points on a jumper on the Lobos’ first possession and had nine minutes by halftime. He played only eight minutes in the second half and scored another four points, but UNM did not need much production from its key players since the Spartans made just six of their 19 field goal attempts in the half.
“I mean, he’s one of our leaders, he’s one of the four captains,” guard Cullen Neal said. “He’s one of the best centers in the country. It’s huge to have him back.”
In order to work Kirk back into the lineup, head coach Craig Neal said he kept the center’s playing time to 20 minutes against SJSU.
One minute under, Neal said, is better than one minute over.
Kirk said he had been dealing with the injury for “quite a while,” but Craig Neal said it began to aggravate Kirk in the games prior to the Jan. 25 outing at Colorado State. Kirk sat out during that game and Tuesday’s Utah State contest in Logan, Utah.
“I think it was bothering him three games previous; it was an all-the-time ache,” Craig Neal said. “We were fortunate to catch it and give him some rest. I think the days off helped him. He looked like he had a lot of energy and played well tonight.”
Kirk said his leg felt well after the contest on Saturday.
“It was crazy how much a week does just for your body, how I was hurting,” he said. “I was rehabbing and that kind of stuff, just to take a breath and relax. I learned some stuff just from sitting out there and watching those guys play.”
National college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb criticized UNM’s defense on Twitter on Jan. 28, stating, “New Mexico can really score, but they can’t defend ball screens w/Kirk — no real bench either.” As of Saturday night, five people retweeted Gottlieb’s post; Kirk was one of them.
“Yeah, what’d we give up, 47 points? Pretty awful,” Kirk said.
“People are going to say what they want, and I guess he’s one of the best analysts in the country, so we’ll have to take that in stride and watch tape and pound fact and get better.”
The 47 points surrendered to San Jose State was the lowest this season for UNM. The Lobos held SJSU to 34.1 percent from the field (15 of 44) and outrebounded the Spartans 40-26. SJSU had only two offensive rebounds and no second-chance points.
SJSU never really threatened UNM, which opened the game with a 17-3 run, entered halftime up 37-25 and led by 29 points late in the game.
Forward Cameron Bairstow paced UNM’s scoring output with 14 points and guard Kendall Williams added 11. The blowout allowed Neal to play several reserve players for significant minutes and 10 different Lobos scored buckets.
Greenwood leaves game early
Late in the second half, Greenwood’s face collided with a San Jose State player’s arm, leaving a cut on his face and his right eye swollen.
No foul was called on the play, but Greenwood missed the remainder of the game and returned to the bench with an ice pack over his eye. There was no immediate word if Greenwood will miss playing time. He missed three games in December with a wrist injury.
“It does not look good, but he’s tough and he’ll bounce back,” Craig Neal said.