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Sophomore forward Joe Furstinger celebrates after scoring an inside jump shot at WisePies Arena Saturday night. The Lobos beat Northern Iowa 76-57 and play NMSU Dec. 16. 

Sophomore forward Joe Furstinger celebrates after scoring an inside jump shot at WisePies Arena Saturday night. The Lobos beat Northern Iowa 76-57 and play NMSU Dec. 16. 

Men's basketball: Lobo defense halts Northern Iowa, 76-57

Under coach Craig Neal, New Mexico doesn’t start out in zone defense often. Only three times since he’s been here have the Lobos opened a game in zone.

On Saturday against a potent Northern Iowa offense, the Lobos went zone early and found success. The defense in turn slowed the Panthers to 44 percent shooting in a 76-57 Lobo victory at WisePies Arena.

Northern Iowa this season has been a strong offensive team, scoring no fewer than 70 points in any game. Behind the zone defense over several stretches, New Mexico (6-2) contained the Panthers to their lowest total of the year.

“We talked about it all week, but then right before the thing I said let's go zone on the first possession,” Neal said. “I think it surprised our guys.”

Lobo guard Elijah Brown, who has emerged a leg in New Mexico’s next Big Three along with forward Tim Williams and guard Cullen Neal, scored a game-high 25 points on a 9-for-15 shooting night with seven rebounds. Having proven himself a threat from 3-point range, he made two in his second-straight 20-point game.

Forward Tim Williams, another Big Three contributor, also posted another so-called “quiet” double-digit game in the post with 19 points and six rebounds. Williams now has six double-figure games.

But the UNM defense came through after surrendering 70 last week at Purdue. Northern Iowa, with arguably the most marquee win this season against North Carolina, had been averaging 79 points in its eight games and scoring more than 50 percent from the field.

The Panthers (6-3), however, were 22 of 50 from the field against the Lobos. From the 3-point line, UNM held them to 6 of 25 with three coming in each half.

The zone defense worked to slow the Panthers down throughout the night, especially on guard Wes Washpun. UNI’s leading scorer had just 10 points on 4 of 10 shooting. Though the Lobos still relied heavily on man defense, the zone was prevalent.

“I think that takes him out of what he can do. I think he's so good with the ball,” Neal said. “He's hard to contain, and I just think that the zone slows them down.”

According to Brown, the defensive success came down to one factor: execution. He said the team communicated well with coaches and with each other in terms of what worked and where to be, and they moved efficiently on the defensive end.

“We are able to stop a lot of penetration, and obviously Washpun the point guard was a very good penetrator,” Brown said. “As we've watched film, that's been a lot of their offense.”

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Only three runs happened through the first half. Northern Iowa nailed seven straight after UNM netted the opening point on a Sam Logwood free throw. Yet UNM responded with an eight straight points, including three from forward Tim Williams. That gave the Lobos a 9-7 lead.

From there the teams exchanged buckets, neither scoring more than two consecutive field goals at a time. They traded six ties and seven lead changes before the half’s only other rally.

Brown contributed in some fashion for UNM’s half-closing 8-0 spurt. He sent a pass laterally over his head to Anthony Mathis for a transition 3-pointer with 1:20 to half, then Brown scored his own triple on the next possession.

UNM gathered the rebound on the next Northern Iowa possession and called a timeout with 10 ticks left to set the final play. Initially looking to shoot another trey, Brown took one dribble inside the arc and hit a 2-point jumper, giving UNM a 35-27 halftime edge.

The Lobos remained ahead for the entire second half with a 7-0 run approaching the 10:30 mark and a 12-3 run to close out the game.

Offensively, UNM shot an even 50 percent (27 of 54). In addition to the scoring, UNM also out-rebounded Northern Iowa by a 36-25 margin. UNM converted those rebounds into 11 second-chance points.

Reserve guard Wyatt Lohous led all UNI scorers with 12 points, with guard Paul Jesperson adding 11. Jesperson fouled out along with guard Jeremy Morgan, who had nine points and seven rebounds.

The win opened a stretch of three games in seven days with New Mexico State and Rice next week. Both games will take place in Albuquerque, followed by the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic over the Christmas holiday.

“I told our guys our goal is to be undefeated at home, and hopefully they're fun to watch,” he said. “They're fun to coach, and they're just getting better and better. Hopefully we'll continue to get better.”

J.R. Oppenheim is the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s basketball and women’s soccer. Contact him at or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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