It’s OK to come in from off the ledge, New Mexico basketball fans. Your team hasn’t slipped into the abyss.
Back-to-back losses to Kansas on the road and New Mexico State at The Pit will cause some to lose faith. But that faith should have been restored Saturday after Craig Neal’s Lobos turned back Marquette 75-68 at the MGM Grand Showcase benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
In the second game of the doubleheader, No. 7 Oklahoma State, led by 23 points from Markel Brown and 18 from Marcus Smart, defeated No. 20 Colorado 78-73.
“I knew we’d bounce back,” Neal said after his team improved to 8-3 and still appears to be the team to beat in the Mountain West when conference play tips off on New Year’s Day. “I thought we played with toughness, and I thought we played smart.”
Hugh Greenwood, the Lobos’ starting point guard, is dealing with a right wrist injury, and he did not play Saturday. Neal also changed his small forward, sitting Cleveland Thomas and starting Deshawn Delaney. Delaney played with a lot of energy and finished with had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“Deshawn gave us some versatility, which we’re going to need when we start conference,” Neal said.
New Mexico also got a big boost from Neal’s son Cullen, a freshman who had a career-high 24 points, including a 6-for-8 showing on 3-pointers.
For some Lobos fans, Cullen Neal, who was a standout at Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School, hadn’t been living up to expectations, entering Saturday with a 6.4-point average. He never concerned himself with what others thought, and had his breakout game as a collegian by showing confidence and toughness in a game that had a postseason intensity.
“I was aware of it,” Neal said of the criticism that gets generated online through message boards and via other social media. “But I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m just my own person, and I’m staying through the process.
“Whenever you can have a game like this against a really good team, it helps ease your transition, and it gives you more confidence.”
Saturday’s result should heighten the Lobos’ confidence. Without Greenwood and with star center Alex Kirk and forward Cameron Bairstow constantly being double-teamed, the Lobos still played well.
Kirk got in foul trouble, didn’t work through the extra attention and scored three points. But Neal, Delaney and Bairstow took the heat off him. Bairstow had 20 points, 10 rebounds and five of New Mexico’s 16 assists.
“I thought we were passing effectively,” Bairstow said. “Last year, we lost some close games, and we have some new pieces, and we’re starting to come together.”
Jake Thomas scored 17 points for Marquette (7-5), which had its two-game win streak snapped.
The Golden Eagles led 60-57 with 6:43 to play. But senior guard Kendall Williams, who had a quiet 14 points, perked up at the right time to lead New Mexico back, and a 13-2 run put the Lobos up 70-62 with 1:07 left.
“It gives us a little momentum going into Monday (vs. Grand Canyon) before the Christmas break,” Craig Neal said. “This felt like a (NCAA) tournament game, and to win it the way we did with everyone contributing, I couldn’t be happier.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.