Entering this weekend’s Charleston Classic as the lone ranked team in the event, the New Mexico Lobos are the team many expect to leave with the trophy on Sunday evening. But the Lobos ran into trouble in the form of the UAB Blazers, whose ability to attack the basket off the dribble in the second half had UNM squarely on the ropes in the game’s final seconds.
But a Kendall Williams runner from about 30 feet out forced overtime and an Alex Kirk three in the final seconds of the first overtime led to a second extra session, and the end result for the Lobos was a hard-fought 97-94 victory. Williams finished the game with 29 points, ten assists and six rebounds, leading four New Mexico players in double figures. Cameron Bairstow added 21 points before fouling out, and Cleveland Thomas knocked down a couple key shots in the extra sessions to keep the Lobos afloat.
Neither team shot all that well, with UNM making just 34.1% of its shots from the field and UAB slightly better at 37.5%, and on an afternoon that saw the Lobos shoot 8-for-38 from beyond the arc they still managed to outscore UAB by nine points in regards to points off of three-pointers. UAB was able to get some things done off the dribble, which may not be evident given their overall field goal percentage, but this wasn’t a conventional game from a statistical standpoint. And no individual stat line epitomizes this more than that of UAB’s Rod Rucker.
Rucker finished the game with 18 points, 20 rebounds and seven assists, which has the appearance of a Herculean effort at first glance. However Rucker did most of his damage (scoring-wise) from the foul line, as his 12-for-13 effort from the charity stripe offset a 3-for-22 afternoon from the field. UAB was well-positioned to pick up a quality non-conference victory on multiple occasions late, but poor defensive execution (and fouling in the act of shooting) left the door open for the Lobos to steal the game. And as a good team would, New Mexico took advantage of the opportunity.
Next up for New Mexico is UMass, whose guards are more than capable of exploiting the issues the Lobos had defending dribble penetration. It can be argued that this is part of the process in adjusting to the new guidelines regarding freedom of movement, but New Mexico will have to adjust quickly if they’re to beat a UMass team that has already knocked off Boston College and LSU and can certainly use another solid non-conference win for their resume thanks in part to BC’s lackluster start.
New Mexico led the Mountain West in defensive efficiency last season, and with four starters back the pieces are there for them to once again be formidable on that end of the floor. And even though a matchup with UMass could prove problematic, it will help them down the line as they look to win another conference title.