For two-thirds of Tuesday night’s game, The Pit did not have the same electric atmosphere as it had Saturday night when New Mexico knocked off then-No. 6 San Diego State. That changed midway through the second half when the No. 25 Lobos came back from an eight-point deficit to rally past Utah State 67-58, maintaining their top spot in the Mountain West Conference standings.
It was UNM’s most consistent scoring output of the game over a five-minute span in the second half. A 23-5 run that included four-3-pointers and nine straight points helped the Lobos overcome a 47-39 deficit.
Guard Cullen Neal hit two triples and scored nine of his 12 points to spark the rally. Forward Cameron Bairstow opened the run but Neal followed with a 3-pointer. Off a Hugh Greenwood trey from Cleveland Thomas, Neal scored the next six points to put UNM up 53-52. The run continued until Utah State’s Jojo McGlaston scored to end the spurt with UNM up 62-55.
UNM has won all nine games this season when Neal has scored in double figures.
Lobo guard Cullen Neal claps his hands in excitement during the game against Utah State on Tuesday night. Neal came off the bench and scored a total of 12 points, nine of which came during a pivotal Lobo rally.
“I was honestly trying to make an open shot,” Neal said, referring to his first 3-pointer of the run. “I was wide open, so it was a big shot. Luckily enough I was able to hit it, and it got the crowd going. It felt good. It’s always nice to hit shots.”
Center Alex Kirk, who scored five before finishing with 13, said Neal played some of his best basketball to help spark the team.
“I’ve seen him play quite a few, from AAU to high school,” Kirk said. “I honestly don’t think he’ll realize how big tonight was for him and our team until after the season, but that was some of the best basketball I’ve seen. The kid can shoot the crap out of the ball, but he was just so smart tonight and he made a lot of the right plays.”
The Lobos closed out the game scoring five of the next seven points, including one play where UNM guard Kendall Williams banged knees with a defender. McGlaston stole the ball after Williams went to the floor. McGlaston missed a 3-point shot that Kirk blocked as Williams got up slowly.
In transition, Neal passed the ball to a limping Williams under the basket, who sank the shot. UNM called a timeout to check on Williams, but he returned to the floor moments later.
UNM head coach Craig Neal said the key to the win came from the second-half defense. Utah State missed 13 shots in the last 11 minutes and shot 36.4 percent from the field in the half.
“That was a grind. I knew it was going to be a tough game,” Craig Neal said.
Neither team grabbed a significant advantage until the midpoint of the first half when UNM used a 10-2 run, kick-started by a Cullen Neal 3-pointer, to gain a 19-12 advantage. However, what steam UNM gained from that spurt, Utah State took away with an 11-0 run of its own.
The Lobos hurt their cause early in that run when Alex Kirk blocked a Jordan Stone shot too late and the official ruled it was a goal tend, the second of the first half. A Cameron Bairstow dunk snapped the skid with UNM down 23-21 and USU carried a one-point advantage to halftime.
UNM had not trailed at halftime since Jan. 25 when it was down by three at Colorado State, and it had led last seven opponents since then by an average of 9.7 points. In the last meeting between Utah State and UNM, the Lobos held an eight-point halftime edge.
“We played three games in seven days, and none of those teams were gimme wins,” Kirk said. “I think we had three really big wins and we’ve got three more to go. That’ll put us in a great spot for the future.”
Kirk recorded his 12th double-double this season with 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Bairstow’s 14-point, 11-rebound performance netted his seventh of the year. Williams added 10 points as UNM shot 43.9 percent from the field (25 of 57), 37.5 percent from the 3-point line (6 of 16) and 52.4 percent from the foul line (11 of 21).
Utah State guard Preston Medlin scored a game-high 19 points, including four 3-pointers. The Aggies were 37.9 percent on field goals (22 of 58), 44.4 percent on 3-pointers (8 of 18) and 50 percent on free throws (6 of 12).