Williams sends Lobos past Houston Baptist
ALBUQUERQUE — This being an election year and all, it makes sense to liken The University of New Mexico basketball team’s early season returns as too close to call. Only a small percentage of the precincts are reporting.
Through two games and an admittedly small sample size, the Lobos are looking OK so far. Monday’s 95-79 win over Houston Baptist in The Pit gives them a 2-0 record heading into their first real test, Friday’s home game against New Mexico State.
Good enough to make a projection thus far is the play of Tim Williams. He’s good. Very good.
He hung a career-high 31 points to go with 11 rebounds on the Huskies in just 32 minutes. He has posted double-doubles in both games and he’s shooting a ridiculous 17-for-22 from the field thus far.
“I’m just trying to be efficient, taking the shots they’re giving me,” he said, taking time to deflect attention toward the guards for feeding him the ball and the coaches for putting him in a position to do some damage. They got me some easy looks, so that’s all I can do.”
The returns aren’t so rosy for shooting guard Elijah Brown. The Mountain West Conference’s preseason player of the year had just six points on 1-for-8 shooting and an 0-fer on five 3-point tries. He had five assists and four turnovers in 28 minutes, clearly showing the effects of limited practice during the preseason due to a bad hamstring.
“I just think he’s probably pressing a little bit,” said UNM head coach Craig Neal. “He’s probably still trying to get in a rhythm. I think our team’s still trying to get in a rhythm. All in all, I think he’s playing harder.”
The Lobos (2-0) never trailed and led 50-31 at halftime. The second half saw Houston Baptist score 48 points, forcing UNM’s starters to play deep into the game while simultaneously drawing the ire of Neal. Echoing a sentiment he has used each of the last two years, he said anyone not giving maximum effort on defense will spend time on the bench next to him.
“We went back to guarding like we did last year, and that’s my fault,” he said. “I’m going to correct it, so guys that don’t do what I ask them to do defensively — they won’t play.”
Neal has said all along he hopes to trim his regular rotation down to eight or nine players. The message is being sent loud and clear to couple of returners that may already be on the outside looking in as junior forward Joe Furstinger has yet to log a single minute in two games while sophomore guard Anthony Mathis played just four minutes in the opener and one minute in Monday’s game.
The team’s newcomers, including freshmen Jalen Harris, Damien Jefferson and Aher Uguak, all got fair looks against Houston Baptist. Uguak scored the first points of his Lobo career on a first-half 3-pointer and Jefferson did the same with a pair of buckets before halftime.
Harris got the longest look, playing most of the second half at point guard. He finished with 13 points and four assists (all in the first half) in 23 minutes of playing time. Neal has described him as the fastest player on the team and it’s something the true freshman is trying to learn how to harness.
“Just basically be smart about my speed and using it when I have do or slowing it down if I need to,” he said.
Three Lobos finished in double figures. Joining Williams and Harris was Xavier Adams with 11 points off the bench. Sam Logwood followed his career-high 20 in the opener with nine points and six boards, not turning the ball over once in 26 minutes.
Also with nine points was starting point guard Jordan Hunter.
All told, the Lobos took 42 free throw attempts (making 35), a sign that they’re playing with the kind of aggression at the offensive end that Neal wants.
With Friday’s game against New Mexico State looming, the coach said the focus needs to shift to the defense. If not, the bench will be a place of quiet inactivity moving forward.
“That’s on me,” he said. “But we’re going to get it fixed.”
Cullen watch: Former Lobo point guard Cullen Neal has helped Mississippi to a 2-0 start as the Rebels beat UMass 90-88 on Monday night.
He scored 21 points, hitting four 3-pointers with two assists. In two games he is averaging 15.5 points.
TV time: The UNM football team’s regular season finale against Wyoming will be Nov. 26 at 8:15 p.m. The time was finally announced Monday afternoon.
The game will be broadcast nationally by either ESPN2 or ESPNU. The difference is huge; if ESPN2 carries it, the school will get $500,000 for the broadcast rights. If it’s ESPNU, it’s only $50,000.
It’s a safe bet that if at least one of the teams wins this weekend, it will demand a bigger audience and get the coveted slot on ESPN2. The two are tied for first place in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division along with Boise State, meaning a Wyoming win (vs. San Diego State) or UNM win (at Colorado State) would assure at least one team playing for no worse than a share of the division title.
The other football: The UNM men’s soccer team rolled to the Conference USA tournament title over the weekend. On Monday it was announced that the Lobos will host Portland at 7 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the team’s 12th NCAA appearance in the last 16 years.
A win would send the Lobos (12-6-2) to the second round on Sunday against 11th-seeded Washington. There are 48 teams in the single elimination bracket and the top 16 seeds all got byes into the second round.