Neal and Kirk help New Mexico beat Utah State
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Getting freshman guard Cullen Neal motivated is something his dad, New Mexico coach Craig Neal, has been doing for some time.
That bit of inside information certainly helped Tuesday night as Neal provided the comeback spark for the No. 25 Lobos, who needed a big second half to overcome Utah State 67-58.
“I kind of have been around him most of his life,” coach Neal said with a grin. “I know how to push his buttons.”
Against the Aggies, that meant a bit of a heated discussion after Cullen Neal took an ill-advised shot in the first half.
“It was just a little argument,” he said. “He knows how to get me fired up. And that’s what he did and it worked.”
Trailing 47-39, coach Neal called a play designed for his son to swing open for a 3-pointer.
“I thought he would make it,” he said. “It was good execution by our guys and he made a big shot to get us going. That cut it to 3 and kind of spearheaded what we were doing going from there. That was a big shot for us. That was the turning point in the game.”
That shot lit a decisive 23-5 run that left New Mexico (22-5, 13-2 Mountain West) with a 62-52 lead.
Cullen Neal added six more points in the surge to finish with 12 for the game, one of four Lobos in double figures.
“He gave us the spark that we needed,” coach Neal said. “We needed somebody to come in and score some baskets and make some plays and make something happen. And he did that. . He lifted our team tonight.”
The Aggies (15-13, 5-11) went 1 for 7 during the run and got taken out of their rhythm, said guard Preston Medlin, who led Utah State with 19 points.
“I felt like they were getting into us a little more and we were trying to force a shot instead of making the extra pass,” he said. “We have to keep playing on offense and making that extra pass and get guys open shots. That always helps us.”
New Mexico got double-doubles from its two interior players, with Cameron Bairstow scoring 14 points with 10 rebounds and Alex Kirk adding 13 points and 11 rebounds while equaling his career high with five assists.
It was a game that the Aggies could have pulled out had they been able to limit the run, coach Stew Morrill said.
“They made shots and we missed shots,” he said of the game-changing run. “That’s it. I don’t think there’s more to it than that. The crowd helped them a little bit defensively. We had a lot of good shots and we just missed them. That’s a sign of a really good team. When the game is on the line, they step up and make some shots. They did and we didn’t.”