LAS VEGAS, Nev. — On a night that saw leading scorers Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams held in check, New Mexico received valuable contributions from a freshman guard and a senior forward. And thanks to those two players the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West picked up a needed non-conference victory for its resume.
Cullen Neal pumped in a career-high 24 points, with 11 coming in the first half with the other key Lobos struggling to get going offensively, and Cameron Bairstow added 20 to go along with ten rebounds and five assists as the Lobos defeated Marquette 75-68. To say the least this is an important result for New Mexico as the Lobos were coming off of a disappointing home loss to rival New Mexico State, a game in which the Lobos failed to make a single three-pointer.
Neal knocked down six of his eight attempts against Marquette with Williams (12 points) making three, an important development for a team that entered the game shooting a Mountain West-worst 29.5% from deep. While the Lobos were still a top 50 team in regards to adjusted offensive efficiency in spite of their three-point woes, they have to hit those shots in order to keep defenses honest and open things up for their talented interior tandem.
“In the losses we’ve had when one of us [he, Kirk and Williams] doesn’t score well or two of us don’t score well that’s when we really struggle offensively,” noted Bairstow. “It was really reassuring tonight to see that guys were able to step up and make shots because me and Alex were double-teamed the whole game, and we really needed people to step up and make shots.”
The question moving forward is one that is asked of any freshman: can Neal get to the point where he’s knocking down those shots on a consistent basis? In the five games prior he shot a combined 5-for-24 from the field and scored 19 points. With Kirk limited to just three points by Marquette, New Mexico needed Neal’s scoring.
“Cullen was tremendous tonight,” New Mexico head coach Craig Neal said after the win. “He played exactly how I thought he could play, and I always thought he could do this. His teammates made a lot of great passes to him and he shot open shots and made good plays.”
Bairstow’s output is essentially a given at this point, and he’s one of the best front court players in the Mountain West. But if New Mexico is to win another Mountain West championship it will take contributions from players such as Neal and Deshawn Delaney (ten points, ten rebounds). Delaney, starting in place of the injured Hugh Greenwood, tallied a double-double in his first start at New Mexico and like Neal he’ll be an important piece moving forward.
“I think that he’s a guy we always expected to play like that,” the elder Neal said of Delaney. “I think we’ve been getting him into the flow of things, and trying to figure some things out in the offensive schemes and the defensive schemes.”
The senior trio of Williams, Kirk and Bairstow will be expected to lead the way for New Mexico, but it takes more than three players to win a championship. Without one of their starters New Mexico was able to pick up a needed resume-builder, and Cullen Neal snapping out of his shooting slump was a big reason why.