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Improved offensive execution keeps No. 25 New Mexico tied atop Mountain West

Mar 2, 2014, 9:15 PM EDT

lobos AP

Fifteen days ago No. 25 New Mexico blew out Nevada in Albuquerque, shooting 55.2% from the field and assisting on 27 of their 32 made field goals in the 90-72 victory. And considering just how well Craig Neal’s team played for much of that game, it can be argued that the final margin was a bit deceiving.

That outcome served as motivation for Nevada, and for much of the first half the Wolf Pack controlled the rematch. But New Mexico would improve its execution and shot selection, erasing a 14-point first half deficit and winning 72-58 in Reno.

The Lobos settled for perimeter shots in the first half, making just one of the nine attempts from beyond the arc and not committing to going inside. It was clear what New Mexico needed to do in order to get back into the game and to their credit they passed up the jumpers in favor of attacking the basket, ripping off a 10-0 run to end the first half with eight of the points coming in the paint. The other two points came courtesy of two Cameron Bairstow free throws.

That would continue in the second half as the Lobos shot 57.7% from the field, and their improved shooting from deep (5-for-11) was a product of their commitment to getting the ball inside. Bairstow scored 14 of his 22 points in the second half to lead the way, with Alex Kirk (ten points, 11 rebounds) and Kendall Williams (11 points, ten assists) both posting double-doubles for the Lobos. And with those ten assists, Williams became the Mountain West’s all-time assists leader.

Those three veterans are expected to lead the way, and for much of this season they haven’t disappointed in that regard. However against Nevada reserves Cullen Neal and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas were just as important, contributing 15 points in the second half. And with neither Deshawn Delaney nor Hugh Greenwood being consistent threats to score in double figures, the contributions of Neal and Thomas will be key moving forward for New Mexico.

With the win the Lobos remain in a first-place tie with San Diego State with two games remaining, the latter of which being a showdown at Viejas Arena on Saturday. And if New Mexico executes as they did over the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s win, there’s no doubt that Craig Neal’s team can win the Mountain West outright.