Reaction, analysis and takeaways from New Mexico's 55-54 win in Cincinnati Thursday night.
Overview: If you wanted to see two teams play hard-nosed, dive-on-the-floor, let-them-play-bloody-like-Jeff Van Gundy basketball, this was your game. If you wanted to see defense, this was your game.
If you wanted to see New Mexico come out and prove itself in a brutal road environment against an undefeated team on a night when (almost) the entire college hoops world was paying attention, this was your game.
There was nothing pretty about it, nothing fluid or poetic or artistically inclined. It was just edgy, gritty, defensive basketball, and it ended as it began, and was won how it was waged: with defensive stops.
Turning point: Believe it or not, despite a 26-22 halftime score, and a margin that never exceeded four points, New Mexico didn't take its first lead of the game until the 14:20 mark in the second half. That's when forward Alex Kirk, who was easily the Lobos' best and most efficient player, crashed the glass for yet another offensive rebound tip-dunk. Kirk missed on this particular attempt (he stuffed one home just a few possessions prior, drawing a foul in the process), but New Mexico scrambled to win it back, and Hugh Greenwood found Kirk under the basket for an easy finish. It was still early, but it was the first time in the game that this impartial observer genuinely considered the possibility that Cincinnati wouldn't find some offense, or build at least some sort of lead, at some point in the second half.
In the end, on the final possession of the game, after 2 minutes and 14 seconds of field-goal free basketball, it came down to a stop. Cincinnati had 14 seconds left in the game. New Mexico had two fouls to give. It gave the first at eight seconds, and the second at four seconds. It was excellent score/situation management by UNM coach Steve Alford, and by the time UC took its final baseline inbounds, New Mexico cornered if off well enough to allow anything threatening at the rim. (Cheikh Mbodj's last-ditch bank shot was well late, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless. Imagine if he had gotten it off on time.)
Neither team played great offense, both teams played excellent defense -- neither team scored more than .90 points per trip -- and in the end the last, best stop was the one that won the game. The result was only fitting.
Why New Mexico won: It finished the game with arguably its best defense. You can't win a game like this without making that stop at that time, and that's exactly what UNM did. But we should also reserve some credit for the timely shots the Lobos made down the stretch, whether from Walker or Snell or especially Williams, who finished 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.
Why Cincinnati lost: It's hard to criticize UC too much, because New Mexico's defense really was that good. But the Bearcats hurt themselves plenty, too. For instance: Cincinnati doesn't get to the line all that often normally (it ranks No. 205 in the country in FT rate), but even so, shooting just four free throws is a good way to cost your team easy points. More than that, it's an indicator of just where the offense was going: to 3-point shots. Typically, Cincy can play great defense and rebound the ball on the offensive, and that's enough. But you can't shoot 31.3 percent as a team (including 9-of-38 -- 9-of-38! -- from inside the arc) and expect to beat a quality team, even at home, even if you defend well. A 5-for-22 night from Sean Kilpatrick and a 5-of-14 night from JaQuon Parker would sink many a squad, as it did for the Bearcats. Perhaps we should be impressed they could play such poor offense and still be in the game, but I doubt Mick Cronin agrees.
Star of the game: Alex Kirk. The New Mexico forward has been playing solid outside-in offensive basketball all season, but Thursday may have been his official national coming-out party. He finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks on 6-for-8 shooting, including one 3-pointer and the offensive (a crashing second-half tip-dunk) and defensive (the key block on UC's final possession) plays of the game.
What it means for Cincinnati: It's tough to swallow a home loss in which you score a mere 54 points, sure, but it shouldn't noticeably change the way Cincy views itself or goes about its business. The Bearcats are a very good defensive team with a coterie of capable guards and a frontcourt that remains something of a work in progress. But for what it is, it's still a very good team, and it will have something to say about the Big East title chase before February is out.
What it means for New Mexico: Earlier today, I made the choice not to preview this game with nuts and bolts -- matchups and Xs and Os -- than with a sort of personal reflection on why it was kind of cool to see Cincinnati back in the top 10 after so many years spent recovering from the post-Huggins era. Some New Mexico fans took issue with this. After all, I barely mentioned their team! Who cares about you, Brennan? Preview the game!
I get it. But here's the thing: The Lobos don't need anyone to speak for them. They don't need pregame validation. They're really good. They battle, man. Steve Alford's team doesn't have one star; they just have a bunch of really solid, really locked-in guys, and that's what allows them to go into road environments like Thursday's and win these close games. They're all in. I didn't think it was possible for most college hoops fans to not already know this, but if there were, that's on them. Because you have no excuse to not know about this program by now.
In any case, this game can also be taken as a sign of the Mountain West's strength. San Diego State is great, UNLV might be the best team in the league (with one of the nation's best players, Anthony Bennett), Colorado State is just as good as last season, Boise State beat Creighton in Omaha, and Wyoming is one of four remaining unbeaten teams in all of college hoops. And New Mexico is New Mexico. Like the league they call home, you should intuitively respect them already. Thursday night was just another reminder.
What’s next: New Mexico's tough nonconference slate continues Monday, when the Lobos travel to Saint Louis for what will almost certainly be another defense-oriented game in another tough road environment. Meanwhile, the Bearcats have to dust themselves off in time for the start of Big East play Monday, when they travel to play the still-vastly-underrated Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peterson Events Center, one of nation's toughest gyms. How's that for a New Year's Eve?