ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Lobos almost played their way out of the Associated Press Top 25 just one day after getting back into the poll.
Forward Cameron Bairstow had 14 points and 11 rebounds as the No. 25-ranked Lobos rallied in the second half to defeat Utah State 67-58 on Tuesday night at The Pit.
“I think the key to our game was our defense in the second half,” UNM coach Craig Neal said. “We just had a little lull. I think all of us had a little lull … after a big week. The fans came to life, our team came to life.”
Center Alex Kirk added 13 points and 12 rebounds, while freshman guard Cullen Neal came off the bench and chipped in 12 points, including three 3-pointers, for UNM (22-5, 13-2 Mountain West).
Guard Preston Medlin had 19 points for the Aggies (15-13, 5-11).
The Lobos trailed 47-39 with 11:27 to go when they finally seemed to wake up. Bairstow made a driving layup, followed by a 3-pointer from Neal.
Guard Hugh Greenwood then nailed a 3-pointer of his own to tie the game at 47-47 with 8:42 left.
“I felt like we were right in the position, waiting to make our run,” said Kirk, who had his 12th double-double of the season. “We made our run when they got tired and we capitalized on it pretty well.”
The teams traded baskets, but Neal’s 3-pointer with just over six minutes left ended up being the basket that put UNM ahead for good. A free throw by forward Merv Lindsay made it 54-52.
The spark Cullen Neal gave the Lobos was certainly noticed by his father.
“I’ve been around him most of his life (and) I know how to push his buttons,” Craig Neal said. “I know how good he can be. I think he’s going to be a really, really good player for us. He gave us the spark we needed.”
From there, Utah State could not buy a shot while Kirk drew foul after foul, going to the line and making four of six free throws. Kirk would add a short jumper and Neal hit a longer one to suddenly give UNM a 62-52 advantage as the Lobos would ultimately cruise to their fourth straight victory.
“Under the circumstances of where our season is at, I thought our guys competed hard and gave ourselves a chance,” Aggies coach Stew Morrill said. “We just had a stretch where the game was on the line in the second where we couldn’t make a shot.”
The first half was back and forth, with both teams getting big runs to trade the lead as the Aggies held a 27-26 advantage.
Utah State had the final word after falling behind 19-12. The Aggies then went on an 11-0 run with five different players scoring. Medlin’s 3-pointer pulled them within 19-18 and center Jordan Stone followed with a dunk to put them ahead for good in the first half.
Medlin finished the half with 10 points, going 2-for-3 from 3-point range.
“I thought we came out and we played good tonight,” Medlin said. “We played one of our better games.”
New Mexico kept battling back, but the Lobos were never able to take advantage of some sloppy play by the Aggies. UNM, though, was worse, committing seven turnovers.
NOTES: This is the first matchup in The Pit between the Lobos and Aggies since Dec. 29, 1979. Utah State won that game 117-83. The next contest between the two teams was this Jan. 28, when UNM won 78-65 in Logan. … F Cameron Bairstow was named the Mountain West Player of the Week again this week, marking the third time this season he has received the honor. He averaged 22 points and 7.5 rebounds in victories over San Diego State and UNLV. … Utah State’s past success on the road is not carrying over to this season. The Aggies have lost six of their nine road games. Entering this season under coach Stew Morrill, Utah State was 106-86 away from home.
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