LAS VEGAS — Whether it was man or zone, the Lobos have seen about every kind of defense an opponent can throw at them.
So when Fresno State threw a full-court press over the course of Thursday night’s Mountain West Basketball quarterfinals at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Lobos knew what to do.
The Lobos cut through that press, utilized by Fresno State more frequently in the second half, and continually attacked the basket. The big men tandem of center Alex Kirk and forward Cameron Bairstow flaunted their typical game, and UNM advanced into Friday’s semifinals with a 93-77 win.
UNM now plays Boise State in Friday’s semifinal at 9:30 MT.
“We’ve prepared for every type of zone,” guard Kendall Williams said. “I think that’s been a positive for us because now we’ve overanalyzed situations and overprepared, which is never a bad thing.”
A 1-3-1 zone defense from San Diego State halted UNM’s quest for another Mountain West regular-season championship six days earlier.
“We’ve been working on that,” Williams said. “What happened Saturday, talking about the San Diego State game, they were able to throw a zone defense at us that a lot of teams don’t prepare for.”
Bairstow and Kirk matched the game-high with 21 points apiece, and Bairstow pulled down 10 rebounds. Williams, the third leg of the Lobos’ Big 3, added 17 points.
Fresno State head coach Rodney Terry called UNM (25-6) an NCAA Sweet 16-caliber team and expressed kind sentiments to Bairstow and Williams.
“They’re a team that cannot only advance in this tournament, have a chance to win this tournament, but go a lot way in the NCAA tournament,” Rodney said in his press conference. “They have all the ingredients to be a Sweet 16-type team.”
But Neal acknowledged that the tournament selections have not been announced yet, and said the Lobos can’t let expectations get to their heads. Last year Harvard upset UNM, a No. 3 seed that won the conference regular-season and tournament.
“We just want another chance,” Neal said. “It’s nice to hear those things but our guys have to stay grounded because I think it affected them last year. I really do. It was new for them. They weren’t used to it. Well, we’re used it now.”
Much like their previous meeting in mid-January, both teams took numerous foul shots. UNM benefitted more from the line, converting 31 foul shots in 38 attempts, while Fresno State hit a lower clip, 19 of 28. These teams combined for 74 free throws in their previous meeting, bringing the two-game total for free throw attempts to 140.
“It’s always going to be important getting to the free throw line, firstly,” Bairstow said. “We understand that it is the highest percentage play in basketball. We want to get there as much as possible. Tonight I think we did a good job converting it.”
UNM never trailed against Fresno State this time around, building a 14-3 lead over the first 4:23. Bairstow and Kirk together scored eight of the first 10 points, and Williams provided his first of nine assists on the second scoring play. The Lobos built its advantage to as many as 14 points before holding a 49-35 halftime edge. Fresno State did not manage any significant runs over the second half and UNM built its largest lead at 73-54. The Bulldogs hit six four 3-pointers in the second half, including four from guard Paul Watson, and UNM outscored Fresno State by only two points in the latter 20 minutes, 44-42.
The Bulldogs featured some balanced scoring with four in double figures: guard Allen Huddleston with 18, forward Alex Davis with, guard Paul Watson with 16 and guard Marvelle Harris with 13. Fresno State hit 39.7 percent from the field (25 of 63), 29.6 percent from the 3-point line (8 of 27).
UNM shot 56.9 percent on field goals (29 of 51) and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc (4 of 14).