With furious rally, Lobos gets surprising win over SDSU
Just before the Lobos flew out of town for Sunday’s game at San Diego State, University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Craig Neal sent a group text to his players lauding them for their demeanor and focus.
His players rewarded his encouraging words with a surprising win over the preseason Mountain West Conference favorites at Viejas Arena.
The Lobos closed out Sunday’s game with a 21-6 run to claim a 68-62 victory that leaves them tied atop the league standings with Boise State after the first week of MWC play.
UNM rattled off the game’s final six points, getting half a dozen key free throws in the last two minutes from Xavier Adams and Tim Williams as part of a run that snapped a 62-all tie late in the game.
Williams finished with 12 points and nine rebounds while Elijah Brown had a game-high 22 points and 8-for-8 shooting from the free throw line as New Mexico snapped a four-game skid to SDSU and picked up its first win in San Diego since 2012.
“Can’t wait for the next step in the journey,” Neal said of his text message while speaking to KKOB-AM during his postgame radio commitment. “Couldn’t be doing it with a bunch of guys that, that I enjoy. I said let’s just go have some fun and take care of business.”
UNM played from behind almost the entire game. The Aztecs (8-5, 0-1) used a 9-0 run early in the first half to open a 14-4 lead, then led by 11 at the half. It remained that way until the Lobos (9-5, 2-0) finally started chipping away in the final six-plus minutes.
Down 56-47 with 6:02 to go, UNM got the spark it needed when Dane Kuiper buried a 3-pointer that ignited a 7-0 run to make it a one-possession game. The Lobos eventually tied it and took the lead with a pair of free throws by Adams with 1:50 left to put them up 62-61.
SDSU went the final 4:18 without converting a single shot from the field, missing their final four attempts and going 2-for-9 in the waning moments. The Aztecs were just 5-for-23 from 3-point territory, failing to take advantage of UNM’s notoriously bad perimeter defense.
Lobos freshman point guard Jalen Harris had four points in the final three minutes and finished with nine points and two assists in a career-high 29 minutes. He was forced into extra time down the stretch after sophomore point guard Jordan Hunter went down with an injury midway through the second half.
Three Lobos got hurt in the final 20 minutes. Neal said center Obij Aget may have broken his hand on a defensive rebound less that two minutes into the second half while Hunter rolled his ankle and Adams hurt his shoulder.
Adams was the only one able to finish the game. Neal said Aget was to be evaluated Sunday night after the team returned to Albuquerque while Hunter is considered day to day.
“Obviously, any win we can get is huge,” Brown said. “But this one, this was a special one. … For us to be going up and down as we’ve been as a team this year and then having a game like this. This was a huge win and it took a lot of maturity. I couldn’t feel any better after this one.”
Three Aztecs finished in double figures, led by Jeremy Hemsley’s 16 points despite him missing six of seven shots from 3-point land.
The Lobos continued to do what they’ve done all season, and that’s get to the free throw line. They outscored SDSU 20-13 from the stripe while hitting 13 of their last 14.
Williams put the Lobos in front for good by converting four straight free throws; two with 45 seconds left to snap a 62-all tie, the other pair with 30 seconds remaining. Harris finished the scoring with a transition dunk with 17 seconds to go.
“You can’t say enough about Tim Williams,” Neal said. “It’s like he’s playing quarterback for you. You put him in the post doubled and he’s making plays. He doesn’t get his normal 18 but every play he made down the stretch was crucial.”
Through the first week of the Mountain West season, home teams are a combined 8-2.
The Lobos’ win in Viejas is a rarity as SDSU had won nearly 90 percent of its home games in the arena under coach Steve Fisher.
“It’s just tough [to win here],” Neal said. “Look at their percentages. They’ve won so many games in here in the last seven or eight years. It’s a tough place to play.”
Kuiper had eight points in a reserve role off the bench. He was removed from the starting lineup in favor of Sam Logwood, who had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Logwood’s lone bucket, a contested one-handed floater in the lane, was his first made field goal in three games.