Just five days after seeing their undefeated record get tarnished by Nate Wolters and South Dakota State, New Mexico went into Cincinnati and did the same to the Bearcats in a thrilling game.
The game-winning jumper came from Tony Snell with 2:28 left on the clock, when he answered a Cashmere Wright three by putting the Lobos up 55-54. Neither team would score again the rest of the night.
Alex Kirk was the star for the Lobos. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is finally healthy this season after sitting out last year due to surgical procedure he had on his back. He finished with 15 points, seven boards and three blocks, throwing down a couple of dunks in traffic and attacking the offensive glass with the kind of reckless abandon that made you wonder if he had forgotten about his back surgery.
In short, Kirk walked into the house of the undefeated No. 8 team in the country and proceeded to start pushing people around.
And it worked.
Because if we learned anything tonight, it’s that Mick Cronin’s club is going to have to learn how to play a whole lot more physical if they are going to have a shot of competing with Syracuse and Louisville at the top of the Big East. The Bearcats were 11-26 from beyond the arc on Thursday night, and they lost. While scoring 54 points. That barely seems possible, but when you consider that the Bearcats shot 9-38 from two-point range — with what seemed like two-thirds of those shots coming around the rim — while earning all of four free throws, it starts to make some sense.
In fact, Cincy’s lack of physicality did more than simply keep them off of the free throw line and keep them under 25% shooting from inside the arc. It also meant that, with 15.7 seconds left, the Lobos still had two fouls to give. That’s why New Mexico was able to run the clock down to 4.5 seconds and force Cincinnati into an out-of-bounds play under the basket for their shot at winning the game.
And, of course, the shot they got was a contested three off the dribble from Sean Kilpatrick, which just so happened to be blocked by Kirk.
A fitting end, you might say.
The Bearcats cannot survive as an elite team without a scoring presence in the paint. They’ll win a lot of games — that’s what happens when you have a back court as good as Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright and a roster stocked with as much athleticism as Cronin has as his disposal — but winning a lot of games and beating a lot of good teams is a different story.
Having the talent to make the second weekend and entering the tournament as a legitimate Final Four contender are two completely different things. Unless Mick Cronin finds a way to get one of his big men the ability to finish around the rim as a belated Christmas gift — or dig up some loophole to get Yancy Gates eligible again this season — the most talented team in the Cronin-era won’t be going all that far.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.