The Nevada Wolf Pack should have brought a few more energy bars to Lawlor Events Center on Sunday afternoon.
“We started out with a lot of energy,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said after a 72-58 loss to the New Mexico Lobos in front of a crowd of 7,259. “But in the second half we slowed down a little bit.”
They slowed down to almost a crawl.
The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 31-17 lead with 4:28 to play in the first half and were outscored 55-27 the rest of the way to fall to 13-16 overall and 8-8 in the Mountain West. The 25th-ranked Lobos have now won five games in a row to improve to 23-5, 14-2.
“We just didn’t have the same energy in the second half that we had in the first half,” said Pack point guard Deonte Burton, who had 15 points and five assists.
“In the first half we had a lot of intensity but towards the end of the half we just didn’t play hard enough,” said forward A.J. West, who had 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Wolf Pack dominated the first 16 minutes of the game.
Cole Huff had a pair of 3-pointers, West had two dunks and Burton scored 10 points on a variety of shots. Ali Fall even came off the bench to tip in a Burton miss to cap an 11-2 run and give the Pack a 26-15 lead.
“We tasted blood in the first half,” West said. “But we didn’t capitalize on it.”
The Pack did all the bleeding over the final 24 minutes of the game. The Lobos, which ran over the Pack 90-72 on Feb. 15 in Albuquerque, got right back in the game with a 10-0 run to close out the first half. Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow had lay-ups during the run, Alex Kirk had a dunk and Deshawn Delaney slashed to the basket for another two points as New Mexico cut the Pack’s 14-point lead to just 31-27 at halftime.
“It’s a game of runs,” said Burton, who scored just five points over the final 24 minutes of the game. “We had our run and we knew they would go on a run, too.”
The Wolf Pack’s focus on defense was the 6-9 Bairstow and the 7-foot Kirk. The two, after all, combined for 53 points in Albuquerque against the Pack.
“You have to take away their strength,” Carter said. “And that’s their strength, the two big guys.”
The Pack did just that the first 16 minutes as Kirk had just four points and Bairstow, the Mountain West’s leading scorer at 20.2 points a game, had just two.
“Those two big guys are a load,” Carter said. “We came out and doubled them in the post and it caught them off guard a little bit.”
“We did a good job on them,” said Huff, who teamed with West and Fall to keep Bairstow and Kirk away from the basket in the first half. “I think they weren’t ready for that. They probably remembered what they did to us (on Feb. 15) and didn’t come out with as much energy. But they made adjustments.”
Did they ever.
Bairstow finished with 22 points and Kirk added 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“Eventually our defense wore down,” Burton said.
The Wolf Pack, though, still found itself in a 49-49 tie after a jumper by Huff (15 points) with nine minutes to play. It was at that point, though, that the Wolf Pack lost whatever remaining energy it had left.
A 3-pointer by Cullen Neal with just under eight minutes to play started the Lobos on a game-changing 8-0 run. Neal added a pair of free throws with 7:18 to play and Hugh Greenwood had a 3-pointer for a 57-49 lead with 6:47 left. Greenwood, who missed his first five 3-pointers, also nailed a 3-pointer for a 67-56 Lobo lead with 2:37 to go.
The Wolf Pack scored just nine points and missed 6-of-8 free throws and 9-of-12 shots during the final nine minutes.
“We fought hard and we played real well for 32 or 34 minutes,” Carter said. “But New Mexico showed why they are (the defending) champions of the Mountain West.”
Kirk had a lay-up and Bairstow hit three free throws and a pair of 8-foot jumpers in the final six minutes as the Lobos pulled away.
“That’s the shot we wanted him to take,” Huff said. “We wanted to keep him away from the basket. That shot is better than him getting dunks and lay-ups like the last time we played them.”
The Wolf Pack has just two games remaining in the regular season, at Boise State on Wednesday and home against UNLV on Saturday.
“We’re right there,” Burton said. “We still have to keep our heads up.”