LAS VEGAS — A hot hand in Las Vegas can pay dividends, and Cullen Neal and the New Mexico Lobos are now quite aware of that.
Neal scored a career high 24 points on six 3-pointers, Cameron Bairstow tallied 20 points and 10 rebounds, and New Mexico’s stingy second-half defense held off Marquette 75-68 in Las Vegas Saturday.
Jake Thomas led Marquette with 17 points on 4-of-7 3-point shooting, and Jamil Wilson scored 15. The Golden Eagles were held to 36 percent shooting in the second frame after shooting 58 percent in the first.
Marquette’s zone defense opened up many chances for the Lobos to make outside shots. Neal made three 3-pointers to open the second half to give the Lobos some much needed momentum after being down by seven. Not normally a tremendous outside threat and taking criticism for his play thus far this year, Neal was trying to simply get into a flow.
“To be honest, I don’t really notice it,” Neal said. I don’t really pay attention to it. I just tried to ignore it and tried to stay with the process,” Neal said.
The Golden Eagles had opportunities to damage to New Mexico’s hopes of winning. Davante Gardner failed to convert on a three-point play with six minutes to go, leaving the Golden Eagles up three points. The Lobos made a 7-0 run over the ensuing two minutes to get the score in their favor, 64-60.
With Marquette behind 66-62 with just over three minutes to go, Jamil Wilson rushed a 3-point attempt in transition that would have tightened the deficit. Wilson later missed a fadeaway from the corner that forced the Golden Eagles to start chasing and fouling.
The dagger came with 1:29 remaining, when Bairstow nailed a jumper from the foul line to increase the lead to 68-62.
After two free throws by Neal on New Mexico’s next possession to make it an eight-point contest, Marquette was not able to get off a shot until Gardner tossed and bricked a 3-pointer with five seconds on the shot clock.
Although Wilson and Thomas would make 3s of their own to trim the margin to four with 15 seconds to spare, New Mexico made its fouls shots to cushion its lead for good.
“I thought we played with toughness,” Lobos coach Craig Neal said. “I thought we played smart. I know it says we had 12 turnovers, but I thought we really, really controlled some tempo late in the game, and it really helped us.”
New Mexico’s zone defense was problematic for the Golden Eagles to start the game. Marquette went the first 3:32 scoreless and fell behind 7-0. The Golden Eagles proceeded to go on a 13-5 run, paced by Thomas’ back-to-back 3-pointers, to keep the contest close early.
Todd Mayo made a jumper with four minutes left in the first half to make the Marquette lead 28-24, and Jamil Wilson finished on a fast-break dunk not long after to make the lead five. A pair of Thomas free throws in the closing seconds of the half gave the Golden Eagles a 37-30 lead going into the break.
New Mexico was able to convert on second-chance opportunities, scoring 15 points on 12 offensive rebounds. With Bairstow’s 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame working the paint, the Lobos prevented Marquette from snatching many potential defensive boards.
Marquette falls to 7-5, and this loss hurt the team’s chance to earn a quality win before Big East play begins Dec. 31. The best win for the Golden Eagles thus far has been their win over George Washington last month in California.
Marquette takes the floor next Saturday at home against Samford, ranked 331st in the RPI rankings.