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Play of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow a step in the right direction for New Mexico

Dec 28, 2012, 9:15 AM EST

Justin Jackson, Alex Kirk AP

Entering the 2012-13 season, interior play was a major concern for the New Mexico Lobos. On the heels of a season that saw them win both a share of the Mountain West regular season title and the league’s automatic bid, few had any idea what Steve Alford would do to make up for the loss of Drew Gordon.

Alex Kirk sat out all of last season due to a back injury, leaving many to doubt if the 7-foot sophomore could have a significant impact for a team that ranks among the best on the perimeter.

Kirk’s performance on Thursday night in the Lobos’ 55-54 win at No. 8 Cincinnati was another step towards answering those preseason questions, and it’s one the Lobos will need to see more of once they begin Mountain West play.

Kirk was very productive in his 29 minutes on the floor last night, tallying 15 points (6-of-8 shooting), seven rebounds and three blocked shots while Cameron Bairstow added seven points and six rebounds for a UNM front court that outplayed Cincinnati’s big men.

Justin Jackson and Cheikh Mbodj did manage to combine to grab 18 rebounds but they scored just four points, all by Mbodj, and as a team Cincinnati shot a horrid 9-of-38 on two-point shots with most of the attempts being of the challenged variety.

Those issues, especially the lack of offense from their big men, should have Bearcat fans concerned while the performance of New Mexico’s big men will be seen as a positive on the heels of their loss to South Dakota State on Saturday.

“It’s about not quitting,” said Alford following the game. “We probably did an average job of blocking them out, probably could have done a better job on block outs, but what I appreciated about our guys is that when they did get the offensive rebounds they didn’t stop.

“When you watch them on tape, they get offensive rebounds and dunk. They didn’t get too many dunks tonight.”

One of the nation’s best teams in regards to offensive rebounding, Cincinnati did manage to grab 16 offensive boards. But they didn’t take advantage of those second-chance opportunities, as New Mexico finished the game with a 14-7 advantage in second-chance points.

On a night that saw both Tony Snell (4-of-15 shooting) and Kendall Williams (five turnovers) struggle to varying degrees, New Mexico was able to pick up a big road victory thanks to their defense and the performance of their big men.

And with far more productive big men awaiting New Mexico (two points, four rebounds) in Mountain West play (UNLV’s surplus of big men, Colorado State’s Colton Iverson and Wyoming’s Leonard Washington immediately come to mind), Thursday’s performance was an important one.

Because even with the talented guards they have, a productive Kirk and Bairstow make New Mexico a player in the Mountain West race.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.