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Friday, December 19, 2014

Men's Basketball: Men seek revenge for loss to UNLV

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By Aaron Sweet / New Mexico Daily Lobo

Cullen Neal jumps for two points against the Nevada Wolf Pack Saturday night at the Pit. New Mexico defeated Nevada 90-72 allowing just 24 points in the first half. This was the sixth time in nine games UNM has held opponents to 27 points or fewer in the opening half.

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A reporter on Monday asked Craig Neal what is needed to win at UNLV this time around. The first three words the New Mexico men’s basketball coach gave were simple, yet direct.

“Score more points,” he said.

Tonight the Lobos shift their attention to Las Vegas, Nev., for a rematch against the Runnin’ Rebels. Though a showdown with No.6 San Diego State looms on the horizon, UNM’s focus should be squarely on today’s contest, especially because UNLV handed UNM a three-point loss at The Pit on Jan. 15.

“I don’t know if a kid should look anywhere ahead of what they do,” Neal said. “They got beat by UNLV and their main focus should be on UNLV.”

The last time these teams met, UNM forward Cameron Bairstow missed a go-ahead 16-foot jump shot in the game’s closing moments and, after a pair of UNLV free throws, three game-tying 3-pointers missed the mark.

UNM (19-5, 10-2 Mountain West) has won seven of their eight outings since then by roughly 12 points per game.

UNLV (17-8, 8-4) currently ranks third in the conference standings, behind SDSU and UNM. The Runnin’ Rebels lost to the Aztecs in the game following their victory over the Lobos, but won six of their next seven games. Most recently, UNLV dropped Utah State 73-62.

“Any time you get beat at your place then you go back to the other person’s place — for this pivotal of a game — revenge is always the word that comes to mind,” UNM guard Kendall Williams said.

“We’re taking it along the lines that it’s a big week for us. One game at a time, obviously.”

Neal stressed that his team must do a better job with its pick-and-roll defense, something he said UNLV exploited in the previous game. UNM has improved on that, he said.

Another key against UNLV, Neal said, involves limiting 3-point attempts. Runnin’ Rebel guard Kevin Olekaibe, who ranks fourth in 3-pointers made in the conference, drained four triples against UNM in the earlier meeting. The Lobos rank last in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage defense.

Neal said UNM must also be aware of Khem Birch, UNLV’s 6-foot-9 center who blocked nine shots against Utah State on Saturday.

“We just have to come out with intensity and play harder and hopefully we’ll play better,” Neal said. “But I think we’ve gotten better since we’ve played them, so that’ll be the big thing.”

Williams named to Cousy Award finalists list

For the third time in his career, Kendall Williams became one of 23 players to be named to the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year watch list. The list was trimmed down from an original 80 athletes.

Williams initially made the list in 2011 and 2012, along with teammate Hugh Greenwood. Williams also advanced to the top 20 last year.

“It’d be nice to make that finals list, but that means we’ve got to keep playing good ball and I’ve got to keep playing good ball,” he said. “I feel good about it, though. It’s a nice award.”

This year he improved both his scoring average (from 13.3 to 17.2) and assists (4.88 to 5). Williams also tends to guard the best player on the opponent’s team, Neal said.

Former Lobo Dairese Gary earned a place on the list in 2009 and 2010. San Diego State guard Xavier Thames also made the 2014 Cousy list.